Brexit expats miss the benefits of EU membership

Europeans who remained in the UK following the referendum and withdrawal regret the increase in paperwork, the difficulty finding workers and the increasingly suspicious attitude towards foreigners

Reino Unido
Pedestrians on Oxford Street, in London, in May 2022.Mike Kemp (In Pictures via Getty Images)
Francisco Peregil

London, with all its wonders great and small. The flower pots hanging from the lampposts, the racial and cultural diversity, the immaculate parks that look as though they had been inaugurated yesterday, the black taxis ― which are now electric ― the free hammocks to enjoy the Euro Cup and Wimbledon matches in front of a giant screen in Regent’s Place, the endless cultural offerings... All of those things are still there despite the stagnating economy, the general decline of the nation, despite Brexit...

But who said Brexit? Certainly none of the main candidates in the general election to be held Thursday, July 4, have either praised or criticized the most relevant decision adopted by the country so far this century: the withdrawal from the European Union. The candidate leading in the polls after 14 years of Conservative governments, Labour’s Keir Starmer, has remained mum on the matter. But for many European Union expatriates, nothing will ever be the same. Thousands of them left the country. But those who stayed can now look back with the perspective of four years since Brexit became effective. And they are willing to speak out about the impact of the elephant in the room that the candidates have carefully avoided mentioning.

Daniel Juliá, an entrepreneur from Spain, has been residing in the United Kingdom for 30 of his 54 years. His company supplies hospitality goods to restaurants in London. He’s doing well for himself, but he believes the country has become less attractive. “At this point I could already have British nationality, but I am resisting it. I have what they call settled status, an indefinite residence permit. But before this we were all EU citizens. And now we don’t have the same rights as the British.”

Juliá talks about the small and the big changes that he has noticed since then. The little ones: “Before Brexit, if you wanted to buy something in Germany, they sent you an invoice, you paid them and that was it. Now, although things have improved a little since the first months of Brexit, you have to do a bunch of paperwork, you have to deal with a customs agent. It’s not too expensive, but it’s £50 here, £60 there…” And then there are the big changes: “Before this, the labor market was more flexible, it was easier to find people. Now, to bring in a cook from Italy or Spain, you have to first pay about £30,000 ($38,212).”

This businessman uses a phrase that the majority of people consulted for this story used as well, with slight variations: “Brexit has been a shot in the foot for the United Kingdom.” And he continues: “When there were problems caused by the budget cuts made by conservative governments, they blamed irregular immigration. ‘Why don’t you have a house? Because of immigration. Why are healthcare waiting lists so long? Because of immigration.’ That was the Brexit mantra. And, now, [the populist candidate Nigel] Farage continues with the same refrain.”

Just over eight years have passed since June 23, 2016, when David Cameron’s conservative government held a referendum where 52% of British people approved Brexit. Four years later, in January 2020, Britain’s departure from the European Union became effective. It was the biggest setback in the history of the European project.

The Italian computer scientist Matteo Dughiero, 34, had already been living in London for eight years when Brexit took place. A few days before the referendum, he had an experience that has haunted him ever since. “I went to an association to seek legal advice because I was having problems with my landlord. The lady who helped me, who was British and white, began to tell me that we had to stop all those foreigners who were coming to take their jobs. And I, instead of getting angry or arguing with her, agreed. To this day I am ashamed that I did it.”

“Damned foreigners”

Dughiero believes that he reacted this way in order to blend in, to not be seen as “that damned foreigner.” “I told myself: ‘If I can’t beat you, I have to join you.’ I believe that Brexit brought this lack of inhibition for certain people to speak out against immigrants. Before the referendum, no one would have openly told me ‘I don’t want you here.’ But the truth is that I came here to work as a waiter and the British didn’t want that kind of job. There were only two or three British people in the entire hotel. The rest of us were Italian, Slovenian, Spanish, French...

This Italian expatriate says that, despite all the regrets, he has chosen to stay in London “because of the opportunities” that the country offers him. “I came without any studies beyond elementary education. And after training on my own as a computer scientist and starting with small jobs, I now have a good contract at the takeaway company Just Eat. I started in 2017 and in just five years I was promoted four times. I went from earning £30,000 to £100,000. If I had not left Italy, I would probably still be a waiter, perhaps without a legal contract, receiving wages under the table.”

A woman with election leaflets for Nigel Farage's anti-immigration Reform UK party in Clacton-on-Sea, England, on Tuesday.
A woman with election leaflets for Nigel Farage's anti-immigration Reform UK party in Clacton-on-Sea, England, on Tuesday.Vadim Ghirda (AP)

Dughiero assumes that the United Kingdom no longer offers Europeans the opportunities that he once had and that he enjoys now. And he prefers for his daughter to grow up in Norway, his wife’s native country. “Here, if things go well for you, like they do for me, you don’t have problems: I have private healthcare and good services. But I want her to grow up in a place where, if she doesn’t succeed at what she does, it won’t be so bad. A place where there is a public infrastructure, a network of services to take care of her. A network that everyone pays for with their taxes.”

Georgios, from Cyprus, believes that the main change that Brexit brought to the country was xenophobia. “Although I fear,” he says, “that this phenomenon is also occurring now in other European countries, with the rise of the far right.” Both Georgios and his Italian wife, Sandra, requested to use those names and not their real ones.

Georgios, 34, is a big data researcher. “In the case of the United Kingdom, this feeling of xenophobia is very hypocritical. Because immigrants are the ones who are holding up the country. Most of the waiters are foreigners. And in hospitals the same thing happens with doctors and nurses.” For this engineer, the result of Brexit is that the Conservative government’s promises regarding the reduction of immigrants did not materialize “because the country continues to need foreign labor. And, furthermore, it has lost weight in international politics.”

Great opportunities, despite everything

Despite all the drawbacks, this Cypriot also praises the job opportunities. “If I don’t like my job, I can change companies in a matter of days. Whereas if I went back to Cyprus, despite my experience, I would have to personally know the guy who knows someone who can get me to talk to the person who is ultimately going to decide whether to hire me.”

Georgios’ wife Sandra, 34, has been in London for 15 years. She is a transportation engineer, an expert in mobility. And she believes that hardly anything has changed in daily life. “It is more of an intimate question. Politicians talk about immigrants as if we were something negative. They do not explain what we contribute to the country. I have had to take my two children to public hospitals and the nurses were Italian and Greek.”

Sandra says that where she notices the effect of Brexit the most is in her company. “We make pedestrian plans in London. We are about 50 on staff. And except for four or five who are the oldest members of the company, the rest of us are Europeans. But since Brexit we have had a very difficult time finding people to hire.” Sandra also values the material advantages: “Here we invest in planning, which is what I do. And flexible schedules and remote work are greatly respected.”

Ulises, the assumed name of a Spaniard who has lived in the country for 20 years, believes that Brexit did not mean so much a material as a psychological change in his life. “I am privileged because I have a good salary. Others have fared much worse. But I experienced Brexit as a rejection, a betrayal,” he explains. “We all have a friend who feels special and who is a little off on his own. It was cool when the UK was in the EU and they thought they were so different. But when you need that friend and he turns his back on you, then things change.”

Ulises is 40 years old and he directs artificial intelligence projects for multinationals. “Most of my acquaintances here are British. But being European in a country that doesn’t want to be European makes you think that the relationship is a mere economic transaction. They granted me permanent residency without any problem because I pay a lot of taxes. That was the only reason. So, it’s sad to say, but I no longer feel loyalty to this country.”

Everything that smells of an advanced civilization is still there, like the flower pots hanging from the streetlights. But when the rug is pulled up to reveal the debate around Brexit, it is easy to find testimonies from Europeans who talk about a growing xenophobia and distrust of foreigners. “The British promise of multiculturalism has been broken,” Ulises laments. “And, furthermore, they are privatizing many things. The beauty of the famous parks is that they are there for everyone. When they are privatized, gardens lose their essence.”

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