“What we need now is not many small countries but a continent,” wrote the pseudonymous Italian fiction writer Elena Ferrante in a letter to Britain ahead of the European referendum in 2016. In the letter that appeared in The Guardian, she urged the UK not to leave the European Union (EU) as staying was “no longer an option but an obligation and an urgent necessity”. Highlighting the need to address common global concerns like migration, terrorism and climate change, she wrote: “The happy few are no longer enough, not even for themselves, but must confront the unhappy many.”
As England formally leaves the EU and tough trade negotiations during the 11-month-long transition phase begin to hammer out a deal between the two, writers of the EU countries say Brexit marks the popularity of xenophobia in Great Britain. Hungarian author and journalist Judit Hidas, 43, and London-based Portuguese writer Clara Macedo Cabral, 50, who were in India recently, say that Brexit is going to affect the day-to-day lives of immigrants. Cabral feels the EU is much more than an institution. She says, “It represents an ideal of friendship, harmony, and compromise between nations. With Brexit becoming a legal reality, I feel the UK, my home, has said farewell to this idea.”
As a Portuguese who embraced England 15 years ago, watching the Brexit debate unfold has not been easy for Cabral. “I wanted the UK to remain in the big European family where it had been for 47 years. My family is European, together we embrace several countries and languages. I see beauty in difference,” says Cabral, who has chronicled her experiences in London in There are Foxes in the Park (2009) and The Winter of the Foxes (2011). “London is said to be the second biggest Hungarian city,” says Hidas, whose latest book, Happiness Ten Thousand Miles Away (2019), is about a middle-class Hungarian woman negotiating the midlife crisis.
Cabral’s latest novel, A Inglesa e o Marialva Um amor na arena (The English Lady and the Master, 2018), tells the story of a real-life London woman, Virginia “Ginnie” Dennistoun, who left England in the 1960s to pursue her dream of becoming a horse-mounted bullfighter in Portugal. Cabral left Portugal to make London her home, while Virginia did her own journey in reverse. She left England and tried to adapt to Portuguese life. “My own experience made me understand that Virginia remained forever between two worlds – the world of Portugal and her beloved England. She changed. She lost the comfort of fitting into a single culture,” says Cabral.
It is difficult for these writers from EU countries to see England moving away from its age-old generosity towards those taking refuge and its shrinking regard for individual freedom. “England is one of the modern cradles of democracy. It is scary to see how popular xenophobia has become there,” says Hidas, adding that the Hungarian immigrants in London are now beginning to stare at instability. “Immigrants are never the real cause of the economic trouble that any country faces,” she says. “Britain has left with claims that the EU didn’t work, but hasn’t Britain benefited as much as the 27 other members from the prosperity and peace that the EU has brought to the continent and the UK for 47 years?” wonders Cabral.
Cabral feels that the cost of Brexit will be huge. “We will witness systemic change. It seems likely that all food imports from the EU will become much more expensive, the cost of living will soar as will the public debt,” she says. The cost of the divorce also includes a badly fractured UK Union. “The UK might disintegrate into smaller states propelled by nationalistic aspirations” says Cabral.
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