Blaise Baquiche explains his unusual route to regaining EU citizenship, through a ‘law of return’ in reparation for the horrors of the Inquisition.
Two years, one thousand pounds, zero lawyers and I’m officially Portuguese. As a Remainer, previously jealous of my counterparts in the 27 remaining countries in the European Union, I couldn’t be happier.
In 2013, Spain and Portugal passed laws whereby Sephardic Jews could now claim citizenship. It was an attempt, in the words of the Spanish Government, to correct the “historical mistake and injustice” of the Spanish Inquisition of 1478 to 1834. In 2015, they updated the law to decree that anybody with any Sephardic Jewish heritage, including non-Jews, could claim as well.
Although no Monty Python sketches were written about the Portuguese, in 1515 they kicked off their own Inquisition to rival that of Spain. Portugal’s King, Manuel I, sought the hand in marriage of Spain’s Maria of Aragon and in proving his love for her in the only way she’d understand, set about persecuting religious minorities.
In choosing which of the two to apply for citizenship, Portugal offered a much easier route. Spain had introduced two additional hurdles to the process, including a language requirement and proof that the applicant has taken steps to integrate into Spanish society. This combined with rumours that the Spanish gesture was merely symbolic as applicants were faced with a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’, made Portugal the easy choice.
All I had do was prove that I was the descendent of someone who kept up with Sephardic customs. I managed this using the Ketuba (כְּתוּבָּה) of my grandparents, a marriage certificate that was adorned in the traditional Sephardic style used by the Jewish community in Cairo in the 1940s. Once attested by the Jewish Community in Porto with a certificate, it was up to the Portuguese civil service to decide my fate. Two years, one civil service strike and a national election later, I was finally given the all clear.
It felt a bit odd, claiming citizenship of a country to which I have no cultural or emotional connection, but has offered me an opportunity to retain all my rights as an EU citizen. Prior to the referendum, I felt perfectly at ease describing myself as English, British and European. For me, getting this passport is about more than just keeping my legal rights, it’s about keeping that identity. Its deep mauve cover emblazoned with the words ‘União Européia’ in gold feels like my own form of rebellion and a swipe at Brexiteers longing for a return to blue passports.
I may have no deserved ties to Portugal through being born or building a life there, but my long ancestral journey form that part of the world to London, via Bulgaria, Greece and Egypt, feels like it was earned. Having my legal freedoms removed matters to me in a way that is deeply entangled with my Jewish heritage, more so than to the ‘Workington Man’ who voted to remove them. Such Leavers care about community and a sense of belonging in their own way, just as I do in mine, regardless of whether that makes me a rootless cosmopolitan or the metropolitan elite.
But in choosing to be an EU citizen again, I should also be wary of my new compatriots. The rise of Spain’s far right Vox party coming in third place in November with 15% of the vote doesn’t sound too comforting, and the election of Portugal’s first far right MP since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974 could be the start of something ugly, of which Jews are all too familiar.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this ‘Law of Return’ was passed soon after the end of the 2008 financial crisis, amidst a 5.3% fall in Portugal’s GDP. For the next eight years an average of 97,000 Portuguese per year left the country, with as many as 150,000 leaving in 2011. For a population of around 10 million, this must have felt palpable, especially as the PM actively encouraged the young unemployed to find jobs abroad.
It begs the question as to whether the law was an act of genuine remorse for the Inquisition, or rather, a hard-headed financial calculation to reboot Portugal’s economy. It makes sense that Portugal would try to fill the void left by this mass emigrant wave, by any means necessary. The state has even gone so far as to offer an exemption on half of all income tax to émigrés who return to Portugal.
And in brushing up on Iberian history, law-makers may have stumbled across a famous (mis)quote of the Ottoman Sultan, Bayazid II, that the expulsion of Jews “impoverished Spain, and enriched Turkey”, to where most Sephardim had relocated after they were told to convert to Christianity or get out.
In any case, I’m not complaining. As a Brit, I’m determined to keep my “freedom to work, study, live and love in all 27 EU member states” à la Caroline Lucas of the Greens. It’s also nice to know that I’m in good Sephardic-Portuguese-British company. Would Benjamin Disraeli have been a citizen of nowhere? Would David Ricardo have had enough of experts?
After two years of waiting, it’s a weight off my shoulders. I don’t even blame the Portuguese civil service for taking so long and for the costs involved. Painful bureaucracy is the lifeblood of citizenship applications. Just ask the Windrush Generation.
Yet just two months after leaving the EU, this may all pale into insignificance. It’s hard to think about freedom of movement during a pandemic which has shut borders and locked down cities. COVID-19 has created more worrying divisions in an already fractious society. Instead of Remainers vs. Leavers, its volunteers vs. stockpilers, mask wearers vs. Blitz survivors.
You’d laugh if it weren’t so scary that Dominic Raab claims COVID-19 gives us all the more reason not to ask for an extension to the transition period ending on 31 December. Having just discovered Dover, he would throw our barely surviving supply chains into yet more chaos with patriotic fervour. History has a dark sense of humour, for as the son of a Jewish refugee, he overlooks the loss of freedoms for Brits that no doubt his own ancestors would have cherished.
Blaise Baquiche is a strategic comms specialist, formerly a transport policy adviser to the Conservative Party in the European Parliament. In 2017, he left the party to fight against Brexit and is now a campaigner for the Liberal Democrats. He is now based in London as an independent EU policy analyst.