I am yet to arrive at a clear idea of what a European Brexit (yet more portmanteaus!) would mean for the plight of old Blighty (or Plighty), yet one thing is for certain: should we choose to exit, the freedom to move between European countries will get much more tricky.
I suspect the impact will be more psychological then practical. Circulate within any conglomerate of people in Britain today – an office block, a university campus, a supermarket or a bank – and you sense the blending of nationalities as a ripening result of open borders. I have a feeling that, even as the debate over immigration grows more heated, the actual coalescence of multi-national people is becoming increasingly seamless and unproblematic. Friends have been made, human connections made. To encumber this state of fluidity with the instatement of visas and increased passport controls will impinge us with new dilemmas about who belongs and who doesn’t.
The history of the passport is instructive here. Before World War I, the status of the passport was changeable. For several centuries it took the form of a letter of introduction, a Safe Conduct document appealing to the host nation to allow the carrier to cross a territory without fear of harm. Present day UK passports still carry a similar message, requesting that the bearer be allowed “to pass freely without let or hindrance.” When the nineteenth century brought a surge in both business and leisure travel thanks to expansive rail networks, the actual enforcement of passport controls were relaxed. Compared to the numbers of people making border crossings, few held official documents.
Then as Europe sunk into war, the commensurate anxieties and tensions changed the status of the passport, from a document of request to a document of identity. The League of Nations convened to secure passport design guidelines, whereby signatories “should agree on a uniform style of passport issued to identical standards.” In Britain, the new passport was valid for two years and contained a photograph and a signature, as well as a terse physical description.
The new documentation also took on symbolic significance for writers and artists of the time. In Raymond William’s classic account of Modernism, “such endless border-crossing at a time when frontiers were starting to become much more strictly policed and when, with the First World War, the passport was instituted, worked to naturalize the thesis of the non-natural status of language. The experience of visual and linguistic strangeness, the broken narrative of the journey and its inevitable accompaniment of transient encounters with characters whose self-presentation was bafflingly unfamiliar, raised to the level of universal myth this intense, singular narrative of unsettlement, homelessness, solitude and impoverished independence: the lonely writer gazing down on the unknowable city from his shabby apartment.”
Here, alienation is taken as the spur to a type of creative identity. What I believe Williams is referring to by the “non-natural status of language” is that increasing disparity between traditional habits of thought and identity embodied by the apparent “naturalness” of one’s own language, compared to the actual myriad realities of “foreigners” given by the shape and colour of their languages and other habits of communication. Thus, modernist writers began to see the contextual nature of language, and in such circumstances were free to experiment with the boundaries of the form.
To a great extent, we no longer experience language as non-natural, since the opposite category of “natural language” is outmoded. The prominence of English as the lingua franca of so many institutions, official and non-official, is also part of this story. But so is the success of the European project to rid ourselves of the alienating predicament of being strangers in a foreign land. The old Justice Commissioner for the EU, Viviane Reding, extolled the current situation in plain terms: “Today, as European citizens… you can travel 3,000km (1,860 miles) across Europe – from Vilnius in Lithuania to Valencia in Spain – without once stopping at a border.” In other words, our natural status is as free individuals at liberty to roam over enormous territories without let or hindrance. This might be too important to loose.