In a previous life, Chris Ward was a political activist who ran a “remain” campaign hub from his London apartment the night British voters made history.
“My heart left the United Kingdom on June 23, 2016,” says Ward, who moved to Berlin in large part because of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“I knew my country had various problems, undercurrents of racism,” he said. “But I thought it had this nice liberal heartbeat. This result showed it didn’t.”
So Ward made a big leap. He moved to Germany with his boyfriend. They got married in Berlin, and Ward found work as a software developer. More than three years after the vote, Ward says he’s thriving.
“This is home,” he says. “This is where I want to live. I’m working toward citizenship here, at which point I’ll have to surrender my British citizenship and I’m fine with that.”
A Rush To Citizenship
Ward is part of a migration that has happened across Europe in Brexit’s wake.
A study conducted by The University of Oxford in Berlin and WZB Berlin Social Science Center reveals the number of Brits moving to other EU countries is at a 10-year high.
Researchers predict 84,000 people will move from the U.K. to continental Europe this year, compared to 59,000 in 2008. Brits getting German citizenship also spiked 1,100% the year after the referendum, from 622 naturalizations in 2015 to nearly 7,500 in 2017.
“The German authorities predict it’s going to be far higher in this coming year, and that includes me who just got citizenship three days ago,” says Daniel Tetlow, a Brit who lives in Berlin and one of the study’s authors.
Many of those applying for citizenship in Germany were racing the clock to get the paperwork finalized before Brexit is finalized, Tetlow says. At that point, the rules will become more rigid because Britain will no longer be a part of the EU, and movement around the continent and permission to work could suddenly become more complicated.
“People cannot stand this level of uncertainty,” says Tetlow, whose research included interviewing British citizens living in Germany. He says some have already lost job offers and mortgages because of the uncertain status of Brits living in the country.
Adjusting To Life In Germany
Life in Germany after Brexit has been an adjustment for families like Magda Sikora and Saamah Abdallah.
Sikora is Polish, and the couple decided to leave London two days after the 2016 vote in part because of the vitriolic campaign.
“A lot of the Brexit rhetoric was about ‘there are too many Eastern Europeans here,’” Abdallah says.
They also wanted to be closer to family, and to get out of the city. So the quiet town of Eberswalde, about 30 minutes northeast of Berlin by train — and a few kilometers from the Polish border — made sense.
They enjoy a slower pace of life, and spending more time with their five-year-old daughter.
But they soon learned how hard learning German would be. Sikora, a social scientist, has had trouble finding work because she is not fluent in the language. She’s making progress in her studies, but “I’ve taken some sacrifices in terms of my career,” she says.
“I feel like I’m on pause at the moment,” Sikora says. “In terms of cultural differences, I felt much more home in Britain than I do here.”
And the same is true for her husband. Abdallah says he still feels British and a part of him feels guilty for being in Germany while his home country is in political upheaval over Brexit.
He won’t be eligible to apply for German citizenship for several more years, and he’s not sure he’s willing to give up his British passport just yet, anyway.
“When you take citizenship, you do have to somehow feel you really do belong in that place,” he says. “I can’t imagine myself saying, ‘I am German.’”
This segment aired on November 1, 2019.