Walking around Amsterdam’s sunny Vondelpark, the default destination for state-sanctioned constitutionals during the pandemic, the main sound you hear is English voices. It is not only here that the Anglophone din dominates; you can’t swing a cat in the Dutch capital without hitting a Brexpat.
Whereas Amsterdam has become accustomed over the last decade to beanie-hatted Shoreditch and Soho transplants getting a foothold in fashion at Tommy Hilfiger’s headquarters or going to work in one of these city’s award-garlanded ad agencies, recently the exodus has taken on more of a Mayfair vibe. The latest batch of émigrés seem more likely to work in banking or high-end property development, and some say Brexit is behind this step change.
Certainly, it’s a turn-up for the books. In 2019, ahead of the UK’s departure from the European Union, the Dutch government unveiled its Brexit monster, a lanky muppet who starred in ads designed to spur businesses in Holland to do their preparatory admin. Seen sprawled over desks and generally getting in the way of business as usual, Brexit was characterised as a massive annoyance.
How times have changed since that campaign, dubbed Project Fur. Despite a national coronavirus curfew, there was discreet jubilation in the Netherlands last month after it was announced that Amsterdam had ousted London from its historic position as Europe’s largest share trading hub. Brexit, far from being an obstructive gremlin, seems to have been the fairy godmother of the piece.
In the twist of separation, Brussels has declined to recognise British exchanges and trading venues as having the supervisory equivalence required to host trades of stock listed in Euros. Consequently, an average €9.2 billion (£8 billion) shares per day were traded on Euronext Amsterdam and the Dutch arms of CBOE Europe and Turquoise in January, up by more than four times from December. London, meanwhile, lost out on about €6.5 billion (£5.7 billion) in deals.
Few expected such a dramatic reversal, mainly because it had been wrongly assumed the UK and the EU would negotiate an equivalence clause. Even Amsterdam’s deputy mayor Victor Everhardt, who doubles as the city’s alderman for finance and economic affairs, seems taken aback. “Stock trading is not a sector that we have heavily focused on,” he says over email, “but we do welcome, guide and facilitate these companies when they approach us.”
Amsterdam wasn’t the only city whose stock market has received a Brexit boost; exchanges in Paris and Dublin have also swelled. But London loyalists have been quick to point out that stock trading is a relatively low-margin sector, with limited direct consequences for jobs and revenues in the trading centre itself — wherever that may be.
According to Freddie Taylor, a British financial services professional who left London for Amsterdam in February last year, the idea that the recent news is therefore beneath notice is “probably bollocks. It’s hugely symbolic and representative of where the liquidity is”.
More importantly, it could be a sign of a wider shift to come. “Europe’s disadvantage has always been that it doesn’t have a pre-eminent financial centre comparable to London or New York,” says Taylor. “Its clout is spread between Milan, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris… But we may begin to see one of them take the lead.
“Finance likes to collect around one big space. You don’t want to go to the marketplace where there’s just three people and a dog. You want to go where there’s everything you need to get your business done — lawyers, accountants, even restaurants.”
Based on his own experiences, Taylor thinks Amsterdam is well placed to provide such a context, particularly for London-based firms who now wish to establish a presence in mainland Europe. “A lot of it is cultural — there’s a lot of English spoken and the Dutch have a very Anglo-Saxon approach to capitalism, whereas Paris feels a bit more foreign in that regard. The tax regime is pretty generous. I’m here on a specialist worker’s visa and I get an income tax break.”
It’s worth remembering that Amsterdam is the city that gave the world the very concept of a stock market. In the 17th century, when the Netherlands ruled the waves, selling a stake in your spice-laden ship was a way of spreading the risk as your vessel made its perilous voyage back from India.
Although the glories of the Dutch Golden Age, facilitated as they were by brutal slavery, are being re-evaluated in the age of Black Lives Matter, the unprecedented influx of wealth and talent it attracted was undeniably a boon to domestic creativity and technology (the telescope and the microscope were both invented here). Arguably, that legacy lives on. At the end of 2019, Netflix leased a 95,000sq-ft office that will become its primary headquarters for the Europe, Middle East and Africa, while Uber is currently building its new international headquarters in the city.
“Amsterdam punches above its weight. Being a relatively small but cosmopolitan place, it is instinctively outward-looking and speaks to the world rather than to itself,” says Kerrie Finch, whose reputation management agency Futurefactor represents creative agencies and tech businesses.
Tom Jarvis established a distinct EMEA office of his London-born social media firm Wilderness Agency here in late 2019. “Amsterdam is the perfect place for us,” he says. “It’s a very diverse and international city with a great young talent pool, a superb client infrastructure and a refreshing way of doing business that’s inherently collaborative.
“Even between agencies, I’ve noticed that people are more willing to share ideas over a coffee. It’s a warm business culture and welcoming to outsiders. Within five minutes of registering an interest in working in Amsterdam, we were flooded with support from the foreign investment body.”
If members of Notting Hill’s banker belt do find themselves going Dutch, they may engage Tara Alapiessa. Her home-finding and relocation service Orange Houses is doing as brisk a trade as ever despite Covid. “We’ve been busy doing apartment viewings on Zoom,” she says, “and dropping groceries on the doorsteps of new arrivals who are quarantining.”
British hires remain as attractive as ever for the many multinationals who headquarter their European operations here, according to Alapiessa. “Brits still have the language advantage, and a reputation for having a good work ethic and education.”
What’s changed is that they’re more likely to stick around. “When I moved here 18 years ago, you couldn’t buy groceries on a Sunday,” she says. Now, there’s a Soho House and a brow bar on every other corner.
In a city whose population is under 900,000, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a pinstriped stampede. City council member Jazie Veldhuyzen is a member of the party BIJ1, which campaigns for “radical equality and economic justice,” and sees the €3.7 million (£3.2 million) the local government spends annually on aspirational city marketing as counterproductive.
“This pursuit of becoming a financial hub for multinationals is forcing people with lower incomes out of the city,” he tells me.
“At the same time, we’ve seen homelessness double.” Get on the list for social housing, and you’ll now be waiting between 15 and 20 years for a flat. “The fundamental right to having a roof over one’s head is being disregarded,” he says.
There is a general agreement that it would be ironic if Brexit were to spur Amsterdam into becoming a canal-side facsimile of London’s most elite enclaves. For all its long-held capitalist credentials, Amsterdam has never really been a “greed is good” kind of place.
Everhardt points out that recent successes are “in spite of the 20 per cent cap on bonuses in the Netherlands compared to 100 per cent in other EU countries”. Generally, displays of status are despised. In the 13 years I’ve lived here, the only open hostility I’ve ever encountered has been while cycling to an event dressed in black tie.
Pandemic notwithstanding, one of my favourite pastimes is admiring the still life paintings in the Rijksmuseum. These exquisite depictions of eye-wateringly expensive flora were commissioned as a way for the newly enriched merchants of the Golden Age to show off.
But look closely. The artists typically undercut the opulence with a tiny, troubling detail: a snuffed-out candle, a worm-riddled apple or a wilted flower. This too shall pass, they seem to whisper. And pass it did. The phenomenon of tulip mania and the resulting economic crash of 1637 is an early example of a commodities bubble. It left the city’s high rollers in rags.
Should Amsterdam lose its head, and its identity, in a flood of foreign money, it can’t say it wasn’t warned. In the meantime, London should hold its nerve. Amsterdam has a lot to offer right now but there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to make you up your game.