As Britain prepares to trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union, launching two years of negotiations that will reshape the future of the country and Europe, Britons living in the German capital take stock of where this leaves them.
The EU has said it is ready to begin the negotiations when Britain invokes Article 50 of its Lisbon Treaty – the mechanism for starting its exit after a referendum last June in which Britons voted by a 52-48 percent margin to leave the bloc.
Briton’s living in Europe, many of whom belonged in the 48 percent remain camp, will face an anxious wait as leaders carry out what Brexit ministers have called the most important negotiations for the UK in a generation.
On a sunny day by Berlin’s bustling Spree river landmark, the Oberbaum Bridge, there is little sign of worry or impending doom.
For a group of mostly twenty-something start-up employees from the UK, Berlin life has felt like something of a bubble, even after the referendum.
“Still living in a la la land, still thinking it might not happen, certain things won’t change,” twenty-four year-old Graeme de Plessis told Reuters TV.
De Plessis, who has been in Berlin for 18 months, is one of 180 employees working for the UK tech start-up based near Berlin’s Ostkreuz. Sixty-five percent of the company’s staff are from the UK.
“It’s kind of like it suddenly all became very real very quickly and it’s almost like the results of the vote have come out again. It is like a new step. I think it is quite scary but it is a very monumental time and I think it is a very special position to be in, being out here, being in Europe while this is happening,” De Plessis says philosophically.
For de Plessis Berlin life is not necessarily forever and he will probably not go to great lengths to stay should it come to it. For Scotsman Gavin Watson, the German capital is now home. Watson sees his only hope in a second Scottish referendum that might open a door back into the European Union.
“I definitely want to stay in Berlin. I just bought a dog two days ago and I live with my girlfriend now and I am pretty settled here,” the 32 year-old from Glasgow said.
“I have got no idea what is going to happen. Nobody has got any answers or ideas about what happens to people who live in Europe or EU nationals who live in the UK. Nobody has got any idea what’s going to happen to them… it’s all up in the air, but at the end of the day, you just kind of hope we still have another vote and we can still get back in the European Union because as far as I am concerned it would be a complete disaster to actually leave.”
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator has said that securing the rights of some 4.5 million EU and British citizens living abroad was paramount.
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s point man on London-Brussels talks said British citizens abroad and EU citizens in Britain faced great uncertainty over rights to residency and access to the labour market, pensions, social security and education.
The British government has been unwilling to guarantee existing rights outside of a broader agreement.
Barnier said continuity, reciprocity and non-discrimination should be guiding principles, adding it would take several months to secure such a guarantee.
“Well, to be honest I think a lot of it is still to be seen. I don’t know how it is going to affect my living position over here. In terms of, you know, working with a British company I think it will have some impact there but yeah, I think at least for me, lots of it seems still to be seen,” Thomas Mangan said.
The 25 year-old Lake District start-up employee said he was hoping to stay in Berlin but with no European heritage and well outside of the 8 year residency requirement for German citizenship was not sure what his options were.
British-Zimbabwean, Mhlanguli Ncube, who has been living and working in the capital for three years had another solution.
“I am opening myself up to a marriage. If you know anyone who would like to get married to a gentleman with an afro in exchange for some type of passport,” he told Reuters laughingly.
“I think Brexit for me, at its most core, it symbolises sort of, stepping back and going back into little shells, which is sweeping across Europe and it is a shame that it is happening in the UK,” Ncube said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has also said she wanted the issue of British and EU nationals living abroad to be dealt with as a priority, while insisting a solution should be reciprocal.
The British government has so far been unwilling to guarantee existing rights outside of a broader agreement.
Berlin spring has finally arrived and even with Wednesday’s trigger on the doorstep the mood in Ostkreuz’s Victoriastadt-Lofts is hard to dampen. The British-owned start-up company has just moved in and everything feels fresh and new and there to stay.
Still, there is a moment when David Thomason-Gray, at 41 the oldest in the group, and the only one among the gathering with children, sums up their general view of the referendum result.
“Sad! Just because I know that once it is triggered we can’t legally get out of that two-year process. So, it is definitely happening after Wednesday. There is no out. There is no coming back from that and yeah, I think it is sad that my nephews and my niece possibly won’t have the same opportunities I had to travel through Europe and I think that is sad.”