Brexit: Shakespearian Comedy or Tragedy?

(Audio version of this post)

In 2016 just after the Referendum, in a tweet to Prime Minister Cameron, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk echoed Hamlet’s famous soliloquy by saying ‘to be or not to be together, that is the question’. Last year German European Minister Michael Roth wrote on Twitter that Brexit was a tragedy not even Shakespeare could have imagined. This year, Tusk again in a characteristic Shakespearian play on words wished a ‘special place in Hell’ for the promoters of Brexit. Was Tusk thinking about The Tempest?, when Ariel quotes Ferdinand’s words   ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here’….

Continuing on this Shakespearian line one could say that those who support Brexit will be thinking it is all Much Ado About Nothing and seeing the European Union telling the UK: ‘when you depart from me, sorrow abides, and happiness takes his leave’. While for those opposing the Brexit it will be more a case of Antony and Cleopatra, a play of tragedy of love and duty, of broken alliances and war: ‘The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack’.

Shakespeare first folio

But Brexit is not about Shakespeare and Britishness, nor can it be explained through a Shakespearean play. Brexit concerns are more complex and go beyond national identity. There are three million non-British European Citizens who have settled in the UK and nearly one million British nationals who are also living in the European Union.  Their motivation to make a foreign land their home was based on their freedom of movement given to them by all of the countries of the European Union (including Britain). The UK and the EU are working together to maintain as much as possible the guarantees granted to them at the time. However, some damage will be inevitable. Their identity as European Citizens, shared with the natives of the land, will eventually cease to be honoured and they will be regarded more and more each day as outsiders. This is the real drama of this Brexit Shakespearean play.

In fact in Britain, the need to compile a record of non-British EU nationals living there has led the UK Government to launch the Settlement Scheme. In theory, it gives all EU nationals, who have been living in the UK for more than five years, the right to continue in the UK and enjoy the rights they had. A test-phase launched in January this year is encouraging EU citizens to apply early for their Settlement Status or Pre-settled Status (the latter if they cannot provide evidence of five years continuous living in the UK). However, a lot of EU citizens living in the UK are skeptical that such a scheme will safeguard the rights they have enjoyed until now. Therefore, many of them are opting for British Nationality if they can. In many occasions not because they share the nationality sentiment with the British People, but because they feel only a British Passport will secure their equal rights.

In the UK, as in other countries around Europe, you need to follow a costly and sometimes lengthy process of naturalisation to be able to get the nationality. You need to do a test in the language of the country and a cultural test on the life of the country (even though a lot of them have lived and worked in the country long enough to be more than fluent in the language, culture and customs of the country).  In the UK the whole naturalisation process can cost around £1500 (in Spain it is around 400 Euros, including all costs). In families where naturalisation is needed for several members of the family, the cost will be very significant. Added to their anguish is the fact that some countries will only accept double nationality in certain situations. Therefore, some citizens will be pressed to choose between the nationality of origin or the nationality of the country where they live, indeed a very difficult decision to make in the majority of cases.

Shakespeare Globe Centre, London

Two years have passed since Donald Tusk tweeted ‘to be or not to be together’, however that is not the question anymore. The question at this precise moment seems to be ‘no-deal Brexit or delayed Brexit’. Going back also to the premise the German Minister argued whether Brexit is or is not a tragedy that Shakespeare would have conceived, I leave it for the readers of this post to answer.  Though what Shakespeare did write in his Julius Caesar play was: ‘Beware of the Ides of March’.

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