Article 50’s been triggered and it took fewer than 24 hours for the first City stalwart to make its move. Lloyd's of London on Thursday confirmed that it will be setting up a base in Brussels to retain crucial licensing rights post-split, and some jobs will inevitably be shifted.
Others are likely to follow suit.
The chief executive of Goldman Sachs’ Europe business last week confirmed that job moves to the continent are a certainty – even though local hires would be made too – and many of the City’s and Canary Wharf’s biggest tenants have hinted at similar plans.
For bankers and their families, moving abroad can be a thrilling step into the unknown, especially if last year’s bonus had adequate zeros, and if a hop across the Channel might help to squeeze out a few more.
Corporate relocation services must already be scouting the Continent’s contending cities to assemble portfolios of penthouses with just the right lick of Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath, replete with walk-in wardrobes and open plan kitchens, marble-topped islands and SMEG fridges.
Life will not be tough.
The lake of Zurich, against an Alpine backdrop, doesn’t exactly challenge the view you had over Moorgate’s sprawling construction sites and the roof of the number 23 bus.
And quaffing Riesling in the Rheingau on any given weekend obviously offers an edge over having to turn around halfway to Chapel Down on account of the gridlocked bank holiday traffic.
But what happens a few months later, when the novelty’s worn off and you wake up to find your stash of PG Tips run dry, your neighbour at the door complaining in foreign tongues about you hanging out your washing on a Sunday or taking a shower after 10pm, and your partner depressed by the dearth of expat job prospects?
It could happen. And, in fact, it has.
In 2010, hedge fund Brevan Howard’s British born co-founder Alan Howard quit London to set up shop in Geneva. He took many of his most senior staff with him. But the prospect of punctual trains, top-notch chocolate and impromptu ski trips (on those admittedly rare days off) seemingly failed to win the Londoners over and within a few years many had returned to the City. The commonest reasons? Boredom and homesickness.
I’ve lived in both Frankfurt and Geneva and despite holding a Swiss passport and speaking German, the allure of London – that certain British je ne sais quoi – persevered. I didn’t even need a partner or family to persuade me.
Friends of mine who have lived in Brussels have lasted a few years before boomeranging, and although I could certainly imagine moving back to the Continent and even settling down there, I struggle to believe that a several hundred-strong community of bankers will readily give up their life of lunches at the Ivy, evenings at Annabel’s and weekends at the Hurlingham Club for an understated European existence.
I recently read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, or “housewife”, a novel set in the suburbs of Zurich about an American woman married to a Swiss banker with three young children.
If you can get over the fact that the book was described by one German paper as “Madame Bovary meets Fifty Shades of Grey”, you might be able to appreciate it as a chilling – and rather compelling – account of the loneliness and exclusion that can haunt those plucked out of their familiar environments and thrown into a city known for being coldly bureaucratic and not exactly a picture of cosmopolitanism.
While the Swiss-born banker thrives, his introverted wife’s paralysing loneliness drives her to addiction, infidelity and a life consumed by guilt.
I think that living abroad can be a fabulous experience, enriching and mind-opening. It can foster new friendships and hobbies, and teach you languages and skills.
But if in a few months’ time you do find yourself with a one-way ticket to Brussels, Frankfurt or Zurich, take it from me and wait until you’re on your way back to London in a few years to read Hausfrau. Because – and here’s your spoiler alert – it doesn’t end well.