“This was a time of vertiginous decline for the mainland. The tourist-based economy collapsed; speculators destroyed the currency; the departure of the Royal Family made expatriation fashionable among the gentry; while the country’s best housing stock was bought as second homes by continental Europeans. A resurgent Scotland purchased large tracts of land down to the old northern industrial cities; even Wales paid to expand into Shropshire and Herefordshire.”
Julian Barnes, England, England, 1998
Before anyone had ever heard of Brexit, some people in Vienna, mostly people I work with, would ask me if I had ever considered becoming Austrian. My answer was always a definitive no. Not borne out by some ideological reason, simply because as partners in the EU there was no need to give up my British passport. In any case, there is a little known part of the Austrian citizenship test where applicants must promise to eat Schmalzbrot (essentially bread coated in lard), listen to the complete works of Hansi Hinterseer and demonstrate a deep knowledge of the films of Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill.
So it was never going to happen, at least not sober. And even after that fateful day nearly two years ago, when David Cameron put his political survival and reputation above everything else (party, parliament and the nation), a time since where my degree of existential angst has reached levels last seen when I discovered my new neighbour was a fathead German with all the personal virtues this implies, I have generally ignored the issue of status, permanent or otherwise.
But a recent meeting has left me rather rattled. It came about after attending a talk hosted by an organisation called the United Kingdom Citizens in Austria (UKCA) which should not, under any circumstances, be confused with the United Kingdom Cheerleaders Association. Closely linked it seems to the Austro British society (they have never invited me to be a member) the group is part of a wider network across Europe campaigning for the rights of UK nationals in the EU post-Brexit, namely “British in Europe”.
In my time in the number one city, I have never actively sought out other British people simply because they were Brits. This had nothing to do with some deliberate belief for the need to embrace alles Austrian and avoid the temptation of using my expatriation to simply to live like a Brit in another city, rather it just never seemed necessary (although through some elements of employment it was inevitable and I welcomed it). But because I have not worked in language schools or schools for years, preferring to captain my own ship sailing the murky linguistic waters of business English training single-handedly, access to what might be considered other native English speakers is, with a few rare exceptions, rather limited. However, with Brexit continuing to confound and frustrate, a long overdue rendezvous in the hot, humid surrounds of Café Ministerium with my fellow burghers seemed all but unavoidable.
And so, on a sweltering evening in late April, I found myself in a café I rarely visit. It was only at that moment I realised that two World Cups had passed since I last was in a room of almost exclusively English native speakers. So I found a space near the back and hoped nobody would try and talk to me (I am not much cop at small talk unless I am getting paid for it). As I sat down it gave me a chance to gaze at my fellow citizens (who were these people?) and was relieved to see some slightly younger faces in the crowd. Good, I thought, people like me. Safety in numbers. Perhaps they are also prone to intermittent vexation, speak my version of German and have a twenty-stone Teutonic tyrant next door with the social finesse of badly administered Botox.
In the meeting I learned the official Austrian position is there is no urgent reason – at the moment – for Brits to apply for permanent settled status, a status which would give those applying indefinite right to live in Austria and cultivate their appreciation of mediocre sandwiches, bad television and abominable driving. The reason being, unofficial or otherwise, was that a provisional deal had already been made between the UK and EU in December last year, promising to maintain rights after Britain leaves.
Confusingly, however, the consensus on the velvet seats in the room was that UK citizens should indeed apply before March 29th 2019 because, as we learned from a representative of the British embassy, although a “deal” was agreed for reciprocal rights (here it comes; the unspeakable and unpalatable truth) “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” In other words, whatever Theresa May and her EU counterparts laid out in principle last year about mutual rights post-Brexit, it could, in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Morgen ist es alles den Bach runtergegangen (go tits up tomorrow).
But why this contradiction in acknowledged public position between the Austrian authorities and the UKCA? It didn’t make any sense to me, although I am not ruling out the errant effects of the Dunkles beer and the heat on my ability to process Brexit speak. On the one side we have the Austrians saying, “relax, drink a glass of G’spritzer, eat more cake”, whilst my fellow citizens are scaring me with talk of paperwork, monumental queues and the need to show proof of income (especially Austrian bonds, diamonds and gold).
All I could conclude was that the Austrian Home Office had to maintain this official line because if word got out they were encouraging the Windrush of Austria to formalise their status in Austria, this would undoubtedly spook Austrians in the UK (and perhaps across the EU). The implication being that there is a good chance none of this will turn out well, so you better get the paperwork in order.
I left the meeting as quickly as I could, thanking the chair and evading the post-match conversations. In truth, I had two options: first, find a big pile of sand and bury my head in it; or secondly, put together the necessary Papiere and accept my fate: yes, a trip to the Amt, the Magistrat 35, the (gulp) Immigration Office where everything I am assured will be efficient, friendly and quick.
Up until two years ago, it was a choice that seemed as likely as my election as the mayor of Vienna. Although judging by the recent story of the former mayor of Ipswich refused UK citizenship (a Dane, no less, who had lived in Britain for decades) this would have probably made no difference. But on my way home, it got me thinking. How did we reach such an improbable position? What the hell is happening to Britain? Is it really time to dust down those Hansi Hinterseer recordings ready for a potential shot at citizenship after all?
All of these questions and more will be addressed in part two as I head off to patiently wait in line somewhere in Vienna’s 12th district. Get the basics right and nothing can possibly go wrong I am assured: arrive early (three people have told me this already), get a ticket and first check that they are not closed on Wednesdays. Oh yes, and take copies of anything that might, even remotely, attest to your continual stay in Austria. Your Austrian bureaucrat is nothing if not thorough.
© 2018 RJ Barratt