On Wednesday I boarded a flight to London, travelling BA for the first time in a decade. Since moving to Austria in 2000 I’ve probably flown into London (Heathrow, City or Stanstead) about 70-80 times. It certainly has no novelty to it.
The previous evening, I was at the British Embassy for the Queen’s Birthday party – an event which draws together a lot of people from the UK or with strong links to the country. The staff at the Embassy of course have to remain impartial over the referendum, but talking to others it became clear that a Brexit will remove so much of life that has been taken for granted by Britons living in Austria. I spoke to an academic who seemed very blasé about what could happen – until I mentioned the fact that I have a fear that those close to pensionable age might be affected by the fact that their pensions may not be so seamlessly transferable in the event of a “No” vote. I also imagine, from speaking to people involved in various associations and groups that have a support function, that we will all have a lot of members worried about issues facing them. Others I spoke to were in the same disgruntled situation as I am – namely disenfranchised by being affected by the discussion, but not consulted or entitled to vote on the issues at stake.
Others were concerned at how their businesses might suffer while there is a question mark over what trade deal will exist, as well as those who also have staff in the UK also wondering how volatility for sterling could affect their businesses.
Twenty-four hours later on the Jubilee Line Extension from Canary Wharf to Waterloo, I overheard two passengers talking about how their elderly neighbours had knocked on their door to ask them for advice on how to vote – they’d said the whole fear factor being bandied about by both sides had left them very unsure as to how to vote. As I eavesdropped their conversation it became apparent that many are torn between what is best for them and what is best for their families too.
Another twelve hours later, the taxi driver who drove me back from Walton-on-Thames to Heathrow made a similar point – he’d been in the UK for fifty years having come over from Italy and highlighted what an important role many EU citizens play in the UK – doing so many of the jobs that are essential, but which some Britons consider beneath them. He’d said he’d achieved what he had through pure hard work by working double shifts in factories, doing anti-social hours to make sure his children and grandchildren also had it easier. He’d said he would have retired by now, but had carried on working to help his family out.
As I logged on back in my office in Vienna, still reflecting that I was glad to be back in the country that I have spent my whole career in, the news filtered through about the attack on Jo Cox, MP, which it would later emerge turned out to be fatal. The attack was a genuine tragedy – leaving two children semi-orphaned and a husband suddenly widowed. The events that unfolded in a flash cast a dark cloud over the proceedings – and it was only fit that both sides to the referendum suspended campaigning.
As I sat in a meeting at One Canada Square, better known to many as the landmark Canary Wharf tower, the beauty of freedom of movement struck me – colleagues from the European Banking Authority, from Portugal and France working in London, others from the UK working like me for various financial supervisory authorities, and others working at the Centre de Traduction in Luxembourg. The mobility of the staff among European organisations is incredible – as would be confirmed by many of those which whom I sat in a meeting in Zagreb at the end of the week.
Two Facebook comments remarked that I’ll still be able to travel in the event of a Brexit, one citing the fact that EU Membership is not essential to be able to travel – a point I can take on board, although when you look at the way a Brexit would affect the general fabric of the EU, and also the dependency of the European Communities and the European Central Bank upon the free movement of EU citizens to be able to staff themselves and to perform the tasks conferred upon them. The other advised me not to lose my passport – rest assured I have two British passports, which is useful for those times when one is in for a visa, or my wife, a third country national needs to present it in relation to paperwork she requires for herself or on behalf of my son.
Those making comments on Facebook would, I am sure, also concede that for an ECB Working Group to be able to meet in Zagreb, in the EU’s most recently added Member State, and encompass participants from so many countries, many working in the organisations they represent thanks to the freedom of movement, that freedom of movement surely plays a role. In the event of a Brexit, I wish them equally plain sailing in their business travel, or in the event that they decide to move to fresh pastures, or even in their right to remain – and hope that their existence is not compromised by any volatility on the markets, either in the short or long-term.
Leaving the UK I felt that the country I now only visit sporadically for work or pleasure is not the place I lived in until 2000. There is still a lot of infrastructure that appears to have been left to decay in the time I have been away, London life on an average wage does not allow people to really “live” – I think about how, despite taking a hit on a foreign currency loan, how fortunate I am in a fortunate position to be approaching the end of my mortgage, while some strap-hangers the service to Walton-on-Thames were looking to find a way to buy something somewhere for the first time at somewhere approaching my age – some of them still living with parents in their 30s. Most new buildings that have shot up that dominate the skyline are or course foreign-owned and financed – yet another sign that with parts of London being the reserve of the foreign super-rich London is becoming increasingly less British than it used to be. Sadly I think that a Brexit, with its claims to be a way to reclaim our sovereignity, will do little to address that either.