From abroad - Brexit through the eyes of our UK Alumni
As negotiations on Great Britain leaving the European Union lurch forward, Emile magazine spoke with some of the Sciences Po Alumni currently living in the UK. Working in finance, business, law and research, they discussed their concerns and perspectives on Brexit.
Sybille Idrac-Raphael (1997), a French lawyer living in London, recently acquired British nationality “to guarantee the future.”
“It’s security. I might as well get it now when I know I can,” she said.
Sybille is one of many Sciences Po Alumni living in the UK. With Brexit looming, most foreigners with full-time jobs likely won’t have much challenge to stay. But they still face extra paperwork and bureaucracy, saying goodbye to friends who are not able to remain, and the uncertainty of the economic effects on their work.
Sybille has lived in the UK for 14 years, is married to a UK citizen, and has British children, so for her, it’s more about easing administration.
She worries less about her non-British friends with professional jobs “who are reasonably privileged and secure.” Her concern is for low-skilled workers such as her Polish nanny and her family, and her Portuguese maid, who have been in the UK for more than 10 years.
But Sybille knows well the difficulties foreigners can face in the UK. For 10 years, she and a team of volunteers have provided French speakers with free legal advice on housing and employment through their organisation Consultations Gratuites. The group could see a sharp uptick in demand for their expertise in the coming years.
“Why would you choose not to cooperate?” Sybille asks.
Emmanuel Goldstein (1992), a managing director at Morgan Stanley, thinks Brexit is “suicidal.” As head of the firm’s EMEA Transportation and Infrastructure division, he says his specific sector won’t be affected much, but the overall impact on the investment banking industry in the UK will be damaging. Many firms are already preparing to relocate to continental Europe. Cities such as Paris and Frankfurt have begun vying to win over companies.
While many analysts say Brexit will weaken both Europe and the UK, Emmanuel says there is a benefit and opportunity for Europe to progress without the weight of Great Britain.
“The UK has always opposed the EU becoming a political project,” he said. “Now it’s a chance for Europe to nurture it’s political perspective and really become something that is more federal than what you would have ever dreamed of if the UK had stayed.”
Some of Emmanuel’s expat friends have already left. Those who have been looking for jobs, he said, are searching more widely outside of London either in anticipation of not being able to stay, or under pressure to find local employment that will allow them a visa.
Laurène Herbelin (2006) at the French Chamber of Great Britain says about half of her social circle have said they would leave if they had a good contract elsewhere. She adds that the same friends who left France for better career and economic opportunities are actually considering returning home after the country’s own surprising political shift this year.
“With the election of Emmanuel Macron, the image of France has changed quite a bit.”
In her job at the French Chamber, Laurène says the UK still attracts foreign businesses. The number of French companies and entrepreneurs going to London since the referendum has remained stable.
The Chamber created a forum for its 600 or so member companies to bring together experts, CEOs, and policymakers to discuss specific issues of Brexit. However at the moment, they find very few answers.
“Everyone is waiting, and this is the main problem, this uncertainty about what the future will look like,” she says. “In the business world, at least from the Chamber point of view, the very large majority of people are pessimistic.”
Since the referendum, Laurène says there is more concern for the ambience in the UK and attitude toward foreigners. Brexiteers campaigned on keeping out foreign labor. Laurène said she and her friends find themselves asking, “What does the vote to leave mean? Are we no longer welcome here?”
German alumnus Ulrike Franke (2011), a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said, “The question is not whether I will still be able to work here, but do I still want to?”
When Ulrike arrived in the UK in 2012, she says she was struck by how people spoke of the UK even then as separate from Europe. “People would say, ‘I’m going to Europe on holiday,’ which you would never say in France or Germany,” she said. “That’s when I realised a lot of people don’t feel that close to the EU."
At the ECFR think tank, Ulrike focuses on the future EU-UK relationship on defence and security. She has a prime seat to analyse Brexit negotiations and watch the fallout unfold.
“If your aim was to screw this up as much as possible, to be as badly prepared as possible, then the UK would be the winner. It’s unbelievable how badly negotiations seem to be going,” Ulrike said.
She added, “If it weren’t so tragic it would be amusing.”
EFCR is moving its centre of gravity to Berlin because of Brexit, according to Ulrike. She will go for six months but will eventually return to the UK longterm. The bulk of her team will not.
But Ulrike thinks Brexit won’t completely dull the UK. “Britain isn’t losing the things that make it attractive in the first place. The economy and education aren’t disappearing. It just means people are going to look more for alternatives.”
The heft of the UK leaving the European Union could take years, leaving businesses, families and individuals in limbo. One constant foreigners can rely on through the process, however, is uncertainty. In professional and personal discussions, Laurène Herbelin said, “The final answer is always… we don’t know.”