Passports in the Time of Brexit


Ellen Magee reflects upon the role of passports to young people in the United Kingdom following the vote to leave the European Union.

In the dark days following the Brexit result, Britain exercised its basic right to Google and decided to finally discover: “what is the EU?” This was the second most Googled question immediately after the results were revealed, succeeding only “what does it mean to leave the EU?”

Following these practical inquiries into what the European Union – the organisation that the majority of Britain actively voted to leave – actually is and does, another area that many Brits took to Google was the possibility and their eligibility for an EU member passport – most notably Irish. At the time of the results, I felt very lucky to be an Irish citizen which brings an irrefutable right to an Irish passport, guaranteeing me ongoing status as an EU citizen. However, many young people from mainland Britain soon found themselves investigating if they were entitled to another passport, whether due to their dad’s Irish roots, or their granny’s Italian heritage.

The question that arises from this flurry of foraging for citizenship and nationality is how accurately does a passport convey our national identity? And furthermore, how important is this accuracy? For many people in the world, the nationality stated on their passport is far from a factual representation of their personal nationalist identity – not least in Scotland, where many feel entirely detached from the placement of ‘British National’ on their passport. Despite 44.7% of Scots voting in favour of independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, and pro-independence parties holding over half of seats in the Scottish Parliament, there isn’t a possibility to hold a Scottish passport. For those from Scotland who require a passport, they are immediately designated the role of British citizen.

However, that is not to say that when a Scottish person possesses a British passport, they are immediately denying themselves of their Scottish identity. There are many other examples of nationalities as which citizens don’t have the privilege of identifying themselves. Here, I am referring to citizens of countries that do not permit its citizens dual nationality, such as Norway, Poland, or Austria. Young people living in Britain who identify, for example, Norwegian as this is their parents’ nationality, face two choices: do they want their passport to reflect their national identity as a Norwegian citizen, and therefore live in Britain as an ‘expatriate’ – even if they have lived here for their entire life – or possess a British passport that will grant them British citizenship, but as a non-EU citizen. Unlike those from Greece, Croatia, or France, for example, they do not have the privilege of being entitled to dual nationality. Should it really be a privilege for your passport to accurately represent your national identity?

Following the idea of privilege, in addition to the practically of eligibility for certain passports, another issue to consider is price. If a young person living in Britain post-Brexit is lucky enough to be entitled to two or more passports, this does not automatically mean that they are lucky enough to be able to afford them. Passport prices rose after the Brexit results for those in Britain seeking out a second nationality. With Italian passports costing €116, Irish costing €80, and Belgian costing €93.50, the possibility of obtaining another passport for many young people in Britain is not as accessible as they would hope.

An area in which Brexit will, arguably, have the most profound effects is Northern Ireland. National identity has been a controversial and daily issue for its people throughout its existence, with people in the North being entitled to Irish and British dual nationality as stated in the Good Friday Agreement (1998). However, despite the ability to identify as both Irish and British, it’s far more common for these identities to be polarised and to encapsulate a whole range of “us” and “them” within them. There are areas that identify as solely and loyally British, but not too far away one can find an area that is overtly Irish, whether it be through the language, or the flags painted onto pavements.

In Northern Ireland, holding a British or Irish passport is often a ferocious declaration of national identity. However, in the post-Brexit uncertainty, many who had previously dismissed the idea of ever identifying as the ‘other side’, took to the post offices to get their passport application. The desperation to remain an EU citizen – whether to facilitate easy travel to the Republic, for work and trade, or simply to ensure the future of holidaying – can be epitomised by the central Post Office in Belfast running out of Irish passport forms a few days after June 23rd.

This sudden surge for a new passport suggests that for many young people in Britain, their passport can sometimes be a means of representing their national identity, if they are fortunate enough to have this possibility, but in other instances, a passport is a mere tool for travel, accessibility, and facility.

[Ellen Magee]

Illustration courtesy of Sara Villa.

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