Brexit's Passport to Nowhere

My British passport, which was issued in 2011, has on its burgundy cover an image of the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, incorporating a lion and a unicorn, along with these words lettered in gold: “European Union/United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

” My son’s British passport, which was issued last September, is the same color and bears the same crest but has different lettering. On his, the words “European Union” have vanished, the severing of ties to Europe having begun even before the U.K. officially departed the E.U., as it did at 11 p.m. on Friday, January 31st. Last August, Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, tweeted an image of himself holding aloft his new, non-E.U.-marked passport, along with the triumphal words “We got our passports back!” By the time I apply for my passport to be renewed, next year, another design change will have been made. My new passport will be blue, as British passports were until 1988, when the burgundy cover was introduced to conform with those of almost every other member country of the E.U.

The reintroduction of the blue passport, which was announced in 2017 but has only recently come into effect, has been greeted by Brexiteers as a welcome restoration and a powerful symbol. The Sun newspaper, a right-wing tabloid, had joined with others to champion its return by campaigning outside Westminster with a blue passport the size of a billboard. Theresa May, then Prime Minister, tweeted that the “iconic” color would return, calling the U.K. passport “an expression of our independence and sovereignty—symbolizing our citizenship of a proud, great nation.” Never mind that the royal crest on the passport bears two French phrases—“honi soit qui mal y pense” (“shamed be he who thinks evil of it”) and “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”)—relics of a time when the King of England also laid claim to the French crown, and evidence of the mutable character of sovereignty. 

For those Britons who opposed the Brexit vote, the symbolism of the blue passport is somewhat different: it’s a stark reminder that they and their children have been deprived of European citizenship. Britons no longer have the right to live, work, and study in any of the countries of the European Union. Nor will Britain be so easily enriched by the many hopeful Europeans who made their homes in what they believed was a welcoming country.

On Friday evening, only a few hours before the 11 p.m. deadline, I used my passport to leave the U.K. as a citizen of the E.U. for the last time. Gatwick Airport, with its bustle and commerce, hardly offers the most elevated environment for what felt like such a momentous transition: with travellers navigating between newsagents and Pret-A-Manger outlets while scanning the departures board for gate information, the place has only slightly more glamour and resonance than the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Still, that’s its virtue: principally serving continental Europe, Gatwick is both an international airport and a regional one, filled with travellers who are accustomed—whether through work, education, or leisure pursuits—to regard not just their native country but all of Europe as their rightful home. Standing in line to hand my passport over to the flight attendant before boarding my flight, I noticed that most of my fellow-travellers held burgundy passports—though whether they were British, Spanish, French, or Dutch, I couldn’t have determined without snooping. 
For now, nothing much will change, practically speaking, for British passport holders coming in and out of the E.U.; until the end of an eleven-month transition period, holders of U.K. passports, burgundy or blue, will continue to join the E.U. line at passport control. Still, the change has happened, whether it’s palpable or not. On Friday night, for the last time, we were all just Europeans.

In the thousand three hundred and seventeen days that passed between the Brexit referendum and Friday the 31st of January, more than three hundred and fifty thousand Britons sought to confirm their identities as Europeans in the most practical way: by applying for citizenship in one of the twenty-seven countries that remain in the E.U., on grounds of either residency or descent. The number of Britons applying for an Irish passport for the first time ballooned from just over seven thousand in 2015, before the referendum, to almost fifty-five thousand in 2019. It’s sometimes argued that because Britain is an island nation, decisively separated from continental Europe by the English Channel, its attachment to the European project must always have been fatally compromised. 

This argument ignores the fact that Ireland manages to fully embrace its European identity despite being an island nation decisively separated from continental Europe by the Irish Sea, the landmass of Britain, and the English Channel. Brexit is Britain’s choice, but it was not necessarily Britain’s destiny.

With the withdrawal from the E.U. finally enacted, the many social and economic consequences of the Brexit vote will now begin to unfold as reality rather than promise or threat. One early casualty of the Brexit decision has been De La Rue, a specialist printing company established almost two hundred years ago. De La Rue—named for its founder, Thomas de la Rue, a printer originally from Guernsey, in the Channel Islands—has printed British passports for decades. In 2018, however, the company lost out on a contract to print the new blue passports, worth six hundred and thirty-six million dollars. Rather than being printed in Britain, the blue passports are being manufactured by Gemalto, a Franco-Dutch company. 

De La Rue’s profits have collapsed; its C.E.O. has resigned, and the company has warned that it may not survive. Our new blue passports, it turns out, are not quite symbols of British sovereignty or of Britain’s status as a proud, great nation. Rather, they are evidence of the pragmatic and sometimes harsh realities of conducting business in a global marketplace. They are also a reminder of the necessary humility with which Britain as a nation—no less than its citizens as individuals—must find a new, post-Brexit identity.

Rebecca Mead