Jan 2, 1992 was the first working day in which Free Movement of Labour applied across Europe.
That day I started my first job at a big company in London. Despite being a 22-year-old Italian, the zero-paperwork requirements made this very easy.
At that time, Britain was no El Dorado: stuck in a deep recession, net migration was a negative number. Interest rates were above 13%, negative equity was the misery-buzzword and financial advisors peddled disastrous endowment mortgages. In the office, ‘Gabriele the Italian’ was an exotic novelty.
The recession eventually ended and Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ ushered in better times. In 1998, net migration moved up a couple of gears: it was the year of the Euro and of ‘Frankfurt vs London: the battle for supremacy‘ and the City was fighting for the crown of ‘financial centre of Europe’; everyone was working hard to attract the best talent from the continent.
Sadly, as my fellow continentals were flocking to London, I buggered off to Wall Street – global capital of cool (at least in my head) and Italians aplenty.
By 2001, when I eventually came back to Britain, the City of London was a triumph of Europeans from all over the place.
Check out the net migration figures since 1975:
- They fall during stagnation and recession – Yes, the Brits too migrate!
- They rise as the economy gets stronger – a virtuous circle of people attracted by prosperity who in turn become significant contributors towards wealth creation.
Wealth-creation was very much in my mind after almost 10 years in a global corporation; So I started up my own business and, to this day, the highest satisfaction comes from the awareness of having contributed to creating and maintaining jobs that would not otherwise have existed.
The Brexit referendum caught everyone off-guard in terms of the strength and range of deep-seated feelings that it awakened in people.
I can’t think of any discussion I have had on this topic with friends or colleagues, let alone the campaigning by both sides, that did not become heated to the point of being uncomfortable.
As an Italian immigrant, even though I have earned money and paid taxes from day 1 and have now spent more than half my life in the UK, the Leave posturing on immigration felt so personal that it made me question my life choices.
I saw the spectre of xenophobia rising all around me …does one in two really want me out?!?
Now, I know that it’s not quite like that, but it feels like that; and I am writing this primarily to process a lot of irrational feelings, something most of us must be experiencing right now.
So why did I come to work in recession-ridden Britain as a young graduate in the first place?
Ok, I was in Love. Not only with the girlfriend I married, but also with the qualities I recognised in the many British people I had had the pleasure to meet until that point in my life:
- Work hard, play hard ethic
- A place where the common man does not feel intimidated by the intellectual
- And of course, the British sense of humour
All these resonated with me and …I wanted to be part of this society!
Not that I could not find something equivalent in my own country, but what seemed particularly attractive to me was that sense of consistency that creates a level playing field.
Is there hope?
Last night, however, as the vote-counting unfolded following the hyperbolic climax of the campaigns, in the dark shadow of Jo Cox’s death, this great framework seemed to crumble.
The actors had taken their mask off and I was surrounded by immigrant-haters, economic fools who, as if in drunken madness, had inverted their Value system: they were playing a bad hand to then work hard as a result, they had turned non-pragmatic, undeserving, dishonest, unfair, shameful, overblown, anti-establishment, humourless!
But then, at the end of a long night, I heard the Prime Minister’s address. The sun shining, it was like a sudden return to sobriety, an awakening from a bad dream.
For David Cameron – regardless of how foolish you think him in calling the referendum or how harshly you judge him for his record in Government – not only rightly accepted the people’s verdict and was graceful in praising the opponents, but instantly created a ‘safe zone’ by stepping down and declaring that the ‘red button’ of EU exit could only be pressed by the new leader.
This most dignified political harakiri buys three precious months where everyone can sober-up, have a chance to look at what’s really happening as a result of the outcome, and start understanding what the options on the table really are going forward.
If you put aside for a second the raw 52%-48% result and focus on what all sides have declared throughout the campaign, i.e.: to work in the best interest of United Kingdom, there is plenty to consider, from the National votes of Scotland and Northern Ireland to the discontent of anywhere-in-England-and-Wales-but-London, to the voice of the half that are pro-Europe, to the economic impact of too zealous an interpretation of the Leave message.
I don’t want to think that this outcome means ‘push the red button and get out’. I want to be hopeful – I am hopeful – that, gone the campaigning frenzy, a reasoned approach from all sides in the UK and Europe will prevail, one that looks with a great sense of responsibility at how best to meet the real wishes of a divided nation.
I would like to see an approach that identifies root causes and finds appropriate long-term solutions for them, without shutting the door to the United Kingdom remaining – albeit in a more rapidly reforming Union.
I used to love Boris Johnson, only to be heartbrexited the day he went for Leave. It pains me now to admit that, if there is one person who can succeed in the juggling act of ‘soft-brexit’ or ‘not-so-brexit’, it is our Jolly Joker BoJo.