Whenever I return to England from my home in France I am struck at once by the number of grossly fat people of beached-whale proportions, by the almost militant vulgarity of much of the population, and by the shabbiness of the infrastructure. This suggests to me that our deeper problems are unrelated to our membership of the EU, and that we have neither the will nor the ability to solve them. This is not to say, however, that our membership serves our national interest.
Brexit is possible, though I confess that I’ll believe it when I see it, given the integrity of our political class. Would Brexit affect my position in France and that of scores of thousands of other Britons living in the EU? National and personal interest do not always coincide, and I suppose that among British nationals living in Europe there are some who fear that they will become less welcome, and that the conditions under which they reside will deteriorate. Their privileges, such as access to healthcare, will be withdrawn; they will become as foreign as, say, Kazakhs.
I can speak only for myself. I have found that the quality of my life has never depended very much on the political conditions under which I lived, and I have lived, temporarily at least, under a comparatively wide variety of such conditions. This, no doubt, was because I was in rather than of the countries in which I resided — in various parts of Africa, for example — and distance from realities or problems almost always serves to lessen their emotional impact. The legal circumstances of my residence have never worried me much.
I retain my house and pay my taxes in England but I could, almost certainly, claim French citizenship if I so desired. Many expats have not qualified for that right and might find, post-Brexit, that they eventually need some form of residence visa. But the idea — apparently put about by stay-in campaigners — that all British nationals will have to leave as part of an ethnic exchange (as after the Greco-Turkish war of 1921) for young French professionals kicked out of London, is completely preposterous. I have never heard anyone here even mention it as a possibility.
Of course there may be financial implications. At the beginning of his term of office, President Hollande proposed to raise property taxes on non-French EU citizens with houses in France, including capital gains tax when they sold; he had to drop this because it was against EU rules. (How we all love rules when they act in our favour!) I suppose that, if Brexit happened, he might reintroduce this proposal with regard to British-owned property; but, again speaking personally, I could transfer ownership to my wife, who is French, and in any case I have no intention of selling.
Private healthcare is much cheaper in France than in England. Dentistry is cheaper, better and more technically advanced. But in any case I have always taken my own health for granted, and believed that health is for enjoying rather than for worrying over. My doctor in England keeps calling me (by computer) for various screening tests but, though — or because — I am a doctor myself, I never attend, even though the tests are free. Once you are in the clutches of doctors it is difficult to escape them and the statistical chances of such tests saving my life are minimal. Except for catastrophic sudden illness or accident, I could always return to England for treatment if I could not have it in France. There is enough to worry about — the wasps’ nests, the weasels in the roof, the dead tree that might fall across the track — without worrying over one’s health.
As for any fear that the French population might become less welcoming or more hostile in the event of Brexit, I discount it. I have never felt the slightest hostility in France, and that is not, I think, because I am a citizen of a fellow EU country. Whatever the official or political class’s devotion to ‘ever closer union’ and something known as the ‘European Project’ (I suspect that meant the creation, sans Tito, of a greater Yugoslavia in Europe), most French people feel French, not European in the political class’s sense: therefore their lack of hostility has nothing to do with membership or otherwise of the EU.
Strangely enough, the British have a good reputation in my area, perhaps because there are not many of them, and they are generally of the well-behaved sort. It is true that rumours of British brutishness have reached local ears — the only word of English one of my neighbours knows is ‘fuck’ — but they have not experienced it themselves. No, it is the Dutch they don’t like; the Dutch who come in large numbers laden with their own food for two or three weeks and spend money only as a last resort. Their ardent citizenship of the EU does not by itself rescue their reputation.
In the end, what expatriates really fear is a change in the exchange rate: but that is a fear wherever they live, and not confined to residents of EU nations. Currencies these days have value only because of a logic that resembles the mutually assured destruction that preserved the peace during the Cold War: currencies are saved by their mutually assured rottenness.
Still, even if all currencies are rotten, some are more rotten than others. Luckily for British expatriates, the euro has several drags on its value, quite apart from its ill-conception in the first place. If the euro were ever to disembarrass itself of its weaker southern brethren and begin to strengthen, British residents would have much to fear (if their income is in sterling, that is), for no one in his heart of hearts has confidence long-term in the British economy, and therefore in its currency. If the British economy does well for a time, it is more like the last gasp of Violetta or Mimi than a true and permanent recovery; on the other hand, frequent statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the French economy’s long-term prospects are better than those of the British — or that, at any rate, is the fear of British residents.
There are, of course, residents rich enough not to worry about currency fluctuations; but there are others, perhaps more, for whom a change of 10 per cent in the wrong direction compared with the time when they moved away from Britain would be, or already is, a hardship. The exchange rate, not politics, is what haunts the expatriate.