On June 23, 2016, 71.8% of the British populace voted on whether or not to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership. The margin was narrow — just 52% voted in favor of leaving — but the outcome was clear.
Five months later, and we are none the wiser about what is going to happen next. We have a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet — yet no official exit timetable or exit policy. Only last week Britain’s High Court issued a landmark ruling, granting Parliament a vote on when the process of leaving the EU will commence. This was a major setback for the Government, yet has shed no light on the political murkiness that has been coined ‘Brexit.’
The international media has focused intensely on the opinions and views of British people, specifically why they voted for or against Brexit. Yet not much has been written about the estimated 3.2 million people living in the UK who are residents of a different European country. Totaling 5% of the population, many of these individuals are hard-working, tax-paying, skilled laborers who have come here in search of a different (and sometimes better) life. They were not given the chance to vote on June 23rd — yet their lives and futures are being impacted by the current uncertainties.
Five months. Five Europeans living and working in London share their thoughts about Brexit. All had been drawn to the UK by the freedom and opportunities this country represents. All were shocked by the vote and by the questionable ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns. All thrive in London’s multicultural and racial tolerance. Yet not all will stay.
Silvia, a 27-year old beauty technician from Romania
Silvia came to the UK three years ago — alone and in search of a new life and better job opportunities. She was attracted to the freedom people experienced in the UK, and by the prolific opportunities for hard-working individuals to forge successful lives. She has surmounted many obstacles to be where she is now, saving money in Romania to fund the initial move, starting work as a cleaner and learning English until she could apply for jobs utilizing her qualifications. In many ways, Silvia is the personification of the opportunism that attracted her to the UK in the first place.
Silvia was also impressed by the lack of racism in the UK, especially in London. London has been a melting pot of nationalities and colors for centuries. Roman soldiers, Oriental spice merchants, West Indian slaves (and later abolitionists), European hard laborers — all have helped weave the city’s ethnic tapestry.
The Brexit vote was, therefore, a total shock for Silvia. She never expected the country that had symbolized the pillars of freedom and multiculturalism for so many years to vote, in effect, against them. In her opinion, the Brexit movement that began at a Governmental level was filtered down to citizens who didn’t really want the decision to vote. No one was given sufficient information to make an informed decision. People were merely shown controversial topics on television that were designed to push a vote by emotion, and not necessarily thought.
Now, post-Brexit, Silvia is worried. She has been asked numerous times by clients why she is still here and if she is scared. “Before Brexit, I was saving my money to open my own salon in London. Now, I’m worried about the economy. I don’t want to invest in something that I may have to abandon.” Silvia strongly believes that Brexit will negatively impact the British economy, especially if the foreign workforce were asked to leave. Cooks, cleaners, retail salespeople, construction workers — the majority of these jobs in London are filled by foreign nationals.
El, an 80-year old retired oil executive from The Netherlands
El spent the first ten years of his life in Indonesia, growing up in what some may call ‘paradise’ until the Japanese invasion during WWII changed everything. His family fled to The Netherlands, yet El’s early years had instilled in him an adventurous spirit. He only lived in The Netherlands for a short time, choosing instead to work in exotic locations like Khartoum and Jamaica. In Lagos, he met his English wife, and after a few more stints abroad the family ultimately settled in the UK.
El was slightly surprised by the decision to leave the European Union. He followed both the Leave and Remain campaigns and it was apparent that neither side presented a clear, factual, and convincing argument. Post-vote, however, El strongly believes that the UK will fare better than Europe will. Twenty-eight countries will now have to agree on a new constitution and economic framework — without the economic might of the UK (the second largest economy in the EU and fifth-largest in the world based on GDP). Yet the UK will only need to “pull itself together” and prove its endurance in the face of a new challenge — something the British ‘stiff upper lip’ will relish doing. El thinks that sectors like Research and Development (R&D) will undoubtedly lose out as they rely heavily on European financial support. Yet at the moment it is simply too early to tell — and too risky to conjecture.
When asked if he has considered returning to The Netherlands for the rest of his retirement El smiles charmingly and issues a steely “No.” “[I have] no worries, my pension is in Euros so I’m smiling at the moment.” And as I see his grandchildren come running across the lawn to greet him, I hope that El keeps smiling for many years to come.
Gosia, a 40-year old language school administrative assistant from Poland
Gosia first visited London during university in the 1990s. An avid fan of Britpop and cutting-edge fashion, Gosia immediately felt at home in London’s quirky art and music scene. Having studied English since the age of 14, Gosia knew that her future was not in Poland and that a permanent move to London was inevitable.
Gosia followed her dream and moved back to London in 2001 with her boyfriend. They had originally planned on staying for only one year, and dutifully moved all of their belongings to Poland again at the end of this time. Yet it only took two months back in Poland for both of them to realize that the UK had indeed become a new, true home for them.
Gosia was on holiday when the vote’s outcome was announced to the world. “My jaw dropped. I was completely shocked.” She could not believe that people had indeed been fooled by the trickery of the Leave campaign, that they could honestly think that immigration (a particularly contentious topic) would stop. “I do understand why people outside of bigger cities or academic centers voted to leave. But I think that they did not realize what was going to happen and that in a way they were tricked into believing that something would make their lives easier and better after leaving.”
Gosia is worried by the uncertainty and by the fact that no one (not even the Government) knows what is going to happen next. Her employer, an international language school, has been very supportive of its mainly foreign staff. Yet she has already heard through the grapevine that other employers are not as positive, some even unofficially blocking job applications from non-British candidates. This is not a Government-endorsed policy, yet some companies seem to be taking matters into their own hands amongst the uncertainty and lack of guidance. “Imagine what would happen if all of the foreigners left London in one day. Every coffee shop and hospital would shut down.”
Gosia has not experienced any xenophobia or racism in her neighborhood, and even feels that in some way people have begun supporting each other more. She will not leave the UK post-Brexit — this is now her home. “Whatever happens, happens,” she tells me. Her dream was to live in London, and she will continue to live her dream.
Vanessa, a 34-year old senior event manager from Italy
Vanessa was offered a job in London four years ago and decided to stay — for the moment. She tells me that for many Italians, the UK has always been seen as a progressive, civilized, and cultural country. A country that was admired because it symbolized something ‘better’. A country that would never in a million years vote to leave the European Union.
Vanessa was surprised by the vote’s outcome. She says that she was misled by the multicultural atmosphere of London and by the city’s ‘Remain’ mentality. Vanessa was most disturbed by how misinformed people were and how an official, British political campaign could be based on false promises. How the Leave supporters who were pledging to put more money into the NHS (National Health Service) were the same people wanting to privatize it six months earlier. She even caught herself thinking, “is this Italy all over again?”
Vanessa strongly believes that people in Britain have forgotten what ‘Europe’ is and what it means to be ‘European.’ “I’m an Italian in London but I can still be Italian. I can maintain my identity, just like a British person can keep feeling and acting British when living in Italy. THAT is Europe.” Yet even London has changed following the vote. According to Vanessa, there are ever-so-small signs that being a ‘European’ in London is beginning to be a liability. Attitudes have changed, racist and xenophobic remarks are more prevalent — almost as if people now have a justification for making them.
Vanessa is worried about the future, yes. Pre-Brexit, she was thinking of maybe moving back to Italy one day. Now, that ‘maybe’ has turned into a ‘probably.’ The money she sends home to her family is losing value, and, as travel costs rise, London will potentially become more inaccessible. International businesses will suffer, and their employees even more. “I had great expectations for Britain, but now I’m just disappointed.”
Florin, a 54-year old security manager from Kosovo
Florin left Kosovo in 1988, lured to the United Kingdom by the smell of democracy. He arrived alone, yet his ability to speak six languages soon helped him to secure an interpreting job with the Home Office. Seconded to work with refugees, Florin was sent to courts, prisons and detention centers — thus gaining an invaluable insight into British policies towards foreigners. Yet it is this insight which made him decide to change career and work in security for a private residential development in London.
Although Florin is now a British citizen, his views of Brexit are interesting as they cover both the European and British sides. Florin was surprised by the vote to leave the European Union, especially when juxtaposed with the UK’s strong economic ties to Europe. In his former career as an interpreter he dealt with people from all walks of life — yet Florin was still shocked by the low level of understanding exhibited by many supporters of the Leave camp. One fueled by a campaign riddled with false statistics and, in some cases, blatant lies. Florin is convinced that the British economy will continue to deteriorate and that the Pound’s devaluation was only the beginning. Holidays will get more expensive and food imports will suffer. On a personal note, even his upcoming dental work (in Macedonia, because it was cheaper six months ago) is now costing him 10% more.
“So when are you leaving?” is a question Florin was asked by a colleague immediately following the Brexit vote. Yet again an example of that surprising “lack of understanding,” as Florin politely calls it. He maintains that he is firmly settled in the UK and has no plans to relocate. “The ones who will suffer most are the ones who voted out. The Government made a big mistake, and Parliament won’t be able to stop it.”