I never imagined witnessing food shortages or the absence of fuel in petrol stations in a western industrialised nation. This usually happened in European countries in wartime. However, this is what Britain is currently experiencing. The official story (or lie?) is that this is because of the Covid pandemic, or that it is a Europe-wide issue. The truth is that Brexit is causing a shortage of workers, including truck drivers, many of whom were from eastern Europe.
Once, they were considered fundamental to the British economy; now they are “immigrants”, subject to border controls in a country that was previously their home. Rather than admitting failure or acknowledging the negative outcomes of Brexit, Britain’s Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson, insists that granting temporary visas will solve a serious problem that could soon affect the supply of medicines. But the idea that a nation can turn to people from other countries as and when they are needed dehumanises those crossing geographical borders.
I feel empathy with those drivers who, preferring to work elsewhere, have left the country. In many ways, I am like them. It is not a university degree that makes some migrants better – or, to put it in even more stark language, more “useful” – than others. I am one of those Europeans who is turning into a foreigner, in a European state where I studied and where I have spent much of my career as a historian.
I was very much in love with Britain. My first encounter with the country, at the turn of the century, opened my eyes to a multicultural, appealing environment. I was an exchange student with the EU educational programme Erasmus. I felt as though I was in the middle of an international web of scholars and students – many of whom were studying international and European politics.
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This was around the same time as the nation became a haven for Europeans in search of new life experiences or jobs. Those unwilling or unable to cross the Atlantic found that the “British dream” – a cool Britannia – was an attractive option. I will always be indebted to a place that gave me the opportunity to grow professionally and to enhance my voice through the media.
London, where I live, is still a multi-ethnic bubble. It is a dynamic, beautiful metropolis with an international core and transnational communities. It is a city that has historically hosted migrants. In the 1800s, Giuseppe Mazzini – a hero of the unification of Italy, and much later of Italian anti-fascist activists and intellectuals – found sanctuary here, supported by the English.
But then the rhetoric of “We are better off outside the EU” and “They are taking our jobs” became popular. The idea of slowing down the employment of “foreign-born” people, along with the narrative of “bumpy relations” with the EU, became normalised. This context legitimised anti-immigrant feelings against fellow Europeans. Unsurprisingly, Britain decided to pull out of the Erasmus programme. It was too pro-European, and consequently didn’t suit the new “global” ambitions of this rampant English nationalist ideology. Was it not worth maintaining a scheme that had shaped generations of (pan-)European citizens through the mobility of young, not necessarily well-off, students?
Not even a fantastic city like London could stop the wave of narrow anti-European nationalism and imperialist fantasies. Many British citizens voted Leave, and later cast their votes for a Conservative government promising to “get Brexit done”. In this sense, the June 2016 referendum has felt, for many Europeans, like a betrayal. It was like discovering that your own partner was cheating on you – and that maybe this extramarital affair had been going on for years, but you were unable to see it.
The problem is that Britain will not easily move on from Brexit. Since 2016, the subject has monopolised the public discourse (leaving aside Covid-19). Now the country faces the prospect of a winter of further labour shortages, rising gas prices, troubles with the Northern Ireland protocol, politicians begging international partners for trade deals, and cuts in social benefits, coupled with growing taxes for the middle, and less affluent, social classes.
Many Europeans, in line with the whole of the EU bloc, have decided to move on. A steady stream of people are leaving the country. They will not be replaced, because one of the key promises of Brexit was that we would extend the famous “hostile environment” to European migrants. We have seen how people have been detained in immigration centres, while students have been sent back to their home countries because they did not have the necessary visa. There is also a fear, both within and outside of the university sector, that employers might prefer workers who have already obtained settled status. Is this really the place we were so in love with?
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I (unfortunately) saw this socio-political storm coming, thanks to my historical expertise. There was something both obscure and clear in the Leave propaganda. Something that had roots in Euroscepticism and in twisted readings of colonial history. It was a bizarre mixture of exceptionalism and perceived greatness, superiority and nostalgia. In many ways, I felt I was in the middle of my own studies on right-wing nationalism and xenophobia. It was like experiencing a historical event in real time. It was like being in Berlin in 1989 when the wall was hammered down, when many people were uncertain as to what would happen next. But there was a difference in 2016 – we were on the other side of the joy. We Europeans, and many British friends, were the losers. A new, better world was not coming.
I am now one of those deciding to move on, with a mixture of happiness and sadness. I am redeploying my career to continental Europe, and will spend some time as a research fellow in an Ivy League institution in the US. Others are less fortunate. It is hard to find jobs in the pandemic age, and some will find themselves trapped here. I hope one day they will find their paths – and that Britain will, too.
Andrea Mammone is a professional historian and a media commentator. He taught at the University of London and has held research and teaching positions in Europe and the US. He will be a 2021-22 Italian Academy fellow at Columbia University. He is an expert on the far right, xenophobia, nationalism and European politics