When the Brexit referendum results first came out, much was made of what would happen to European nationals living in Britain and how their exodus would affect vital economic sectors. How would the NHS cope without nurses from EU countries? What would happen to the harvest without EU nationals employed as fruit pickers?
But many European citizens seem to have decided to weather the storm, preferring to stay in Britain rather than moving back home or to another EU country. According to the Home Office, 4 million have so far applied to the EU Settlement Scheme, which will regulate European citizens’ residency rights once the Brexit transition period ends on the 1st of January 2021. And while EU immigration saw a clear drop after the 2016 referendum, net migration from the remaining 27 member states has “stabilised since 2018”. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, up until March this year, more Europeans were still moving to the UK than those opting to leave.
However, for some of those to whom Brexit did not seem worth voluntary repatriation, the British government’s response to COVID-19 is prompting the question of whether moving elsewhere would be wiser than staying.
For Iris Gomez, a Spanish national who lived in London until May, the empty supermarket shelves, the disregard for social distancing and PPE, and the flouting of rules by those who could afford to, were enough to make her think again about the country she had lived in for seven years. After looking into other countries’ pandemic management strategies, she decided to move to Berlin.
By the time she applied for a job in Germany the British government was “putting the blame on the public, but then they were not supplying businesses, for example, with hand sanitiser gel,” says Gomez. Faced with a choice between living under a perceived negligent government and leaving her home, Gomez found herself thinking “what's going to be worse?”. Germany won out.
Her move was anything but smooth. It followed months of isolation after a trip to Japan forced her to avoid social contact long before the UK-wide lockdown came into force on the 26th of March. At her then-employer’s request, she struggled to get a coronavirus test which were not yet widely available to the British public. She had to endure days of delays, and then a 5AM call to tell her an ambulance was waiting outside to take her to a hospital for a swab. The results took two weeks to arrive. “That kind of gave me no great feeling about things,” she says.
Since moving to Berlin, life has changed drastically for Gomez. Her pay is “like by like” but she was able to move from a boxy flatshare to a big flat just for herself and her cat. And when it comes to living during a pandemic, London pales in comparison. “In Germany, you know, restaurants and everything was opening up again,” she says retrospectively, “but then at the same time, when you go to the supermarket, everyone wears a mask, when you go to a restaurant everyone wears a mask until you sit down. In England, I kept going to the supermarket and people were not wearing anything.”
In Berlin, “life is a little bit easier,” she says.
Eszter Sólyom came to Aberdeen just over four years ago to do a degree in business management and international relations. Her life was that of your typical student, splitting her days between university and working part-time jobs as a shop assistant, waitress, and bartender. She was looking forward to staying in Britain following her graduation this summer. The prospect of going back to her hometown in Hungary didn’t even cross her mind.
“I loved living in Scotland, I do really like it here,” she says with a big smile as she talks to VICE News via a Zoom call.
She received her pre-settled status, applied for jobs, and even prepared to move to England after interviewing for positions in Sheffield and Leeds. Then the pandemic hit. “I kind of struggled to find anything,” she says, “my part time job was furloughed because of COVID-19 and after I was just kind of like struggling both ways, finding a job and just mentally being very isolated.”
So in early October Sólyom suggested to her Hungarian boyfriend that they move back. “I'm leaving at the end of November, and I'm really excited,” she says.
Sólyom is enthusiastic despite her knowledge that the move to Hungary will have its setbacks. She says that “at home it's definitely more difficult, our wages are lower.” But in a time of pandemic and on-off lockdowns, being closer to family and friends takes precedence for the 24 year-old. Besides, she adds, “there seems to be a lower number of cases [in Hungary] and because of that life is a lot freer at home.”
The Hungarian government has been widely criticised for its handling of the pandemic, including implementing a state of emergency that resembled an autocratic coup. However, coronavirus cases in Hungary stayed relatively low throughout the first wave. As of the 8th November, Hungary counted 11,347 cases per million population. The UK on the other hand counted 17,356 on the same scale.
“Even if the decisions and the handling of it politically is not the best. I think that really helped me make the decision,” Sólyom concludes.
When the Brexit referendum results were announced, Kit MacKechnie opted for a “well, let’s see what happens” approach. Then COVID happened, and the British-German dual citizen thought about leaving London, their home for over a decade.
“Watching how catastrophically Boris Johnson handled this pandemic” and comparing it to the approaches taken by other European governments sent the research assistant into “quite a deep panic”, MacKechnie says. Soon panic turned to anger after repeated news items exposed the government’s failures in dealing with the crisis, including “the various leaks that happened throughout the summer, where you can see certain contracts have been given to best friends [of Conservative ministers].”
VICE News spoke to MacKechnie three days after they had arrived in Berlin, a city they also call home. They are subletting a flat with their partner until the new year, their internet is shoddy, and they’re yet to get a local mobile phone. Yet there's a sense of relief after the cumulative effect of Brexit, COVID-19, and the political landscape that framed both events, left them feeling anxious and depleted. “I guess it just kind of suddenly feels like I can breathe. I feel a lot safer now.”
The latest long-term migration estimates by the ONS make a point of noting that while the period referred to is the year ending March 2020, the data was collected only until the 16th of March. That’s because the survey “was suspended on this date because of the coronavirus.” The extent of a post-COVID exodus is difficult to assess at this point. But Sólyom, Gomez and MacKechnie, have made their decision, and all mentioned other people they knew who were considering the big move.
For those Europeans who have already left, there seem to be no hard feelings and a shared hope that those things that once brought them to Britain will flourish once more. “At the end of the day, I still love this stupid little island, I love the sense of humour. I love how self-deprecating people are. There's nothing like them anywhere in the world,” says MacKechnie. “That's why I want to hold onto that hope, because if I don’t have that hope then I've just lost my second home.”