Back to Brexit Scotland for auld lang syne
Driving the narrow country roads, there is nothing perceptibly different in the landscape of my childhood. The same purple-green rolling hills, same gray angry sky, same cold North Sea wind leading the sheep to huddle together.
It is my first journey back to Scotland since I left to work in Germany last summer. Although nothing seems to have changed since 11 p.m., January 31, 2020, the island of my past has taken a step away from the continent I now call home.
The road to Scotland's Brexit
Scotland's place within the European Union and the United Kingdom has dominated the politics of my adult life. In 2014, Scotland narrowly voted against independence from the UK. One of the main arguments made by the anti-independence movement was that by remaining a part of the UK, we continued to reap all the rewards of being in the EU, one of the most powerful political blocs in the world.
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I had just turned 19, and it was the first time I exercised my democratic right to vote. Heady and full of hope for a progressive future Scotland, I voted for independence. Then I immediately regretted what had been a hasty decision. I had just started university, I had moved into a residence with lots of Europeans, and it was funding from Scotland, the UK and the EU that made it possible for me to study. I felt guilty the day after the referendum. I had been part of the 45% who wished to break up this kingdom. How could I have wanted to rip this apart when so much hinges on unity?
Two years later, I woke up on a beautiful June morning in the Swiss Alps to the news that 52% of Britons had voted for the UK to leave the EU. In Scotland, 62% of the electorate had rejected Brexit. I went to work at my summer job as an intern at an international peace-building conference feeling dazed and confused at the prospect of explaining this choice to colleagues from all over the world.
In the intervening years, I had chosen to study languages at university and was about to embark on an Erasmus program in Germany — funded by the EU, the program allows European students to study abroad — where I would work with and become friends with EU citizens. Brexit had blindsided me.
It's been a rocky three-and-a-half years since then, but in 2020 something that seemed an impossible nightmare finally became reality. In January, membership of the Erasmus program for the UK was discontinued. I may be one of the final beneficiaries of the program.
The moment of change
On Brexit night, I met with old school friends to laugh and drink away a night in an old farmhouse far away from the sleek glass buildings of Brussels, the venerated stone of Westminster and the messy modern architecture of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. In the last five years, we all benefited from our place within the EU — by studying and living abroad, holidays, job-hopping. Now, none of us knows exactly what the future holds.
The uncertainty has ground me down over the drawn-out years of the Brexit negotiations. Brexit has sent people to support political extremes and made Scotland feel like a land of generalizations and absolutes. People are disillusioned with mainstream politics and even more unwavering in their beliefs. There seems to be more hate and intolerance and less respect for others.
For me, no party or movement offers a future or a solution that makes sense. Every argument for Scottish independence, for a second referendum, for any kind of Brexit seems to be based on blind support of extremes. I feel distant from any of the options.
For Auld Lang Syne
In lowland Scotland, far away from the Loch Ness Monster and the mountains of the Highlands, we are the country of Scots poetry. Walter Scott and Robert Burns roamed through these hills. When members of the European Parliament from 27 countries last week sang the words of Burns to bid the UK farewell — "For Auld Lang Syne" — I was moved. In Scotland, it is the song that marks the end of a wedding or a party; it is the song we sing at midnight at the end of the old year. In Scots — my dialect — it means "For the sake of old times."
I will leave this place and return to Germany, where I am building a new home. I am a white male with an education, the privilege of a second language and a family to fall back on if necessary. Brexit will not be the financially or socially debilitating horror that it may be for so many small businesses, immigrants and welfare recipients.
Yet, the EU has been a part of my entire life. My personal journey to Brexit has been full of contradictions and unanswered questions, and the future seems to offer more of the same.
I doubt the landscape of my childhood will change much. The sheep on the hills under the winter sky will huddle much as they have for centuries — and the traditions, friendships and bonds that make Scotland what it is will continue, as they did for auld lang syne.
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