Pubs, curry, PG Tips … but not the weather! What the Brexit exiles miss about the UK

·17 min read

Everyone misses something. For some, it’s quite specific: PG Tips, Branston pickle, proper curry. For many, it’s more intangible: the atmosphere of an English pub; that greenness, everywhere; tolerance; and British openness.

Then they pause. Actually, many formerly British-resident EU nationals say, what they miss is an idea. Or, to be precise, the idea of Britain they had before 24 June 2016: all of them remember, in painful, pin-sharp detail, how they felt, and what they did, the morning after.

While it is clear that EU immigration into the UK has declined sharply since 31 January last year, when Britain finally left the bloc’s orbit and free movement came to an end, it is hard to say exactly how many EU nationals have left since the Brexit referendum. The figures are confusing. The ONS says Brexit and the pandemic prompted more than 200,000 EU nationals to go in 2020, leaving a total of 3.5 million in the UK – but the Home Office says it has received 6m applications for settled status. Jobs data suggests 9% fewer EU nationals were working in Britain last year than in 2019. Immigration experts, however, say the official data is insufficient, and almost certainly underestimates the true number of departures by a significant margin.

The words the EU citizens use to describe how they feel are invariably the same: forgotten, lost, betrayed, belittled, voiceless

Elena Remigi is a translator and interpreter who, after the shock of the referendum result, set up In Limbo, a Facebook group for EU citizens in the UK and Britons on the continent. She reckons more than 20% of the 100-plus EU citizens whose testimonies she published in the first of the project’s two books in 2017 have now left Britain.

“Some went right after the vote,” says Remigi, who has lived in Britain for 15 years. “Others waited for job offers. More left in 2020, in the transition period, when British partners could still settle easily in the EU. The pandemic convinced another lot to go.”

But for all the confusion around the exact numbers, few experts doubt that the bitterness created by Brexit, combined with longer-term concerns about becoming second-class citizens, have prompted many to go. Early reports of unfair “hostile environment” treatment of legally resident EU citizens have spurred the exodus: EU nationals arriving for job interviews have been locked up, and others legally resident in Britain have been detained.

When the Independent Monitoring Authority, which was set up under the Brexit deal to protect the rights of EU citizens settled in the UK, surveyed 3,000 EU nationals in the UK last summer, it found one in three lacked trust in the government, and one in 10 were planning to leave. Last month, the same body launched legal action against the Home Office, accusing it of breaching EU nationals’ basic rights.

Many, of course, have decided to stay, regardless. For those who decided to go, the decision was rarely easy. Often, they had been living, working and bringing up families in Britain for decades. Some took British partners – often with equally strong feelings about Brexit – with them. Others separated.

They are still scarred. We settled, they say, contributed, built lives in Britain, felt it was our home – and then, without us having any say, you suddenly changed the rules. The words they use to describe how they feel are invariably the same: forgotten, lost, abandoned, unprotected, unwelcome, betrayed, belittled, voiceless. Many were asked when they would leave. Most believed that in future some degree of discrimination – over jobs, housing, healthcare, bank accounts – was inevitable.

But returning to the EU has not always been easy. So yes, there are things about Britain they miss. Though they have also lost their illusions of what Britain was. The most succinct summary she has heard, says Remigi, goes like this: “Farewell, Britain. You were once good to me. And then you weren’t.”

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‘I miss multiculturalism. Proper customer service, green trees. Not the weather. Not the food’: Maria Candela, Spain

Candela thinks her experience is a common one. “Come to England, find a job, meet someone, get married, have children,” she says. “Then wake up one morning, see the result of the vote, and realise everything has changed. Leave. There are many like me, aren’t there?”

She still believes Britain is a tolerant country. “I always thought it,” she says. “Perhaps this is a hiccup of history. Maybe Britain has just stepped back to move forward. What I do know is the day I left was the saddest of my life.”

Candela spent 23 years in Britain, coming first to study English, then working for a Japanese trading company. She married a Japanese man in insurance, and raised two children, now aged 15 and 20.

“We bought a house in Orpington,” she says. “It was our home. The day we left, 4 August 2017, I cried so many tears. I feel emotional talking about it even now. I have kept a photograph of it, all emptied.”

Brexit was “such a shock. British people always seemed so respectful of foreigners. And the vote brought everything out that was hidden. All this pride in being British, this dislike of other cultures, all in the open.”

The morning after, taking her daughter to school, she recalls other parents “looking at the floor. People who knew me.” They looked guilty, she remembers. “A remainer friend came round and announced, ‘We love you.’ Very dramatic. Lots of people said, ‘It’s not against you.’ I thought: but it’s against people like me.”

What also changed, she says, is that she started “wondering about people. Which way they’d voted. I’d never thought that way before. Comments you wouldn’t have thought about twice, you started noticing.”

Just over a year after the vote, her then husband (they separated a few months ago) was offered a job in Spain, and took it. “He was over the moon,” she says. “The sun, the food … He wasn’t very happy in England.”

For Candela, there was “a reverse culture shock”. She was “feeling sad that my country isn’t capable of doing that much better. The whole Catalan independence thing kicked off as we arrived – the same issues, a divisive referendum, all over again. It wasn’t easy.”

Now she is working in Barcelona, for a startup. Although her children are British nationals, her son just told her: “Mum, wherever I go, I’ll be a foreigner.” Her daughter is studying at Goldsmiths, and happy; she at least feels at home. Candela misses “London’s multiculturalism. Proper customer service. Green trees. Not the weather. Not the food. And I wouldn’t go back.”

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‘At UK universities there was a rich exchange of ideas, this great multicultural welcoming of foreign minds’: Andrea Mammone, Italy

“There are mixed feelings, but no regrets,” says Mammone. Now a senior researcher in contemporary history at the Sapienza University of Rome, for the past 10 years he was at Royal Holloway, University of London.

An expert on the far right, nationalism and European politics, Mammone, whose first experience of Britain was an Erasmus year in Bath in 1999, watched the Brexit process unfold with an interest that was as much professional as personal. He got it half wrong, half right. “On the one hand, I thought the leave campaign did not look like it was winning,” he says. “On the other, I was absolutely certain, looking at what the Conservatives were saying, that if it did, it would be a disaster.”

There are lots of people like Mammone in UK universities, “people who came for this very open British system, this rich exchange of ideas, this great multicultural welcoming of foreign minds”. Now, he says, “many are leaving. You see a difference of approach. It feels like certain topics or themes are becoming almost out of bounds. A kind of nationalism has come back. Add in the marketisation of higher education in the UK, and the universities are not what they were.”

Professionally, Mammone says, he could see this was “demagogy in action. The Brexiters’ analysis was so poor; it was clear they could never deliver all they promised. We used to talk about British pragmatism, but leaving Europe actually brings Britain closer to the populist politics of parts of the continent.”

Personally, he feels “a sort of betrayal. Like a rejection of the European identity. It was a shock when it happened, certainly. Politically, culturally, Britain showed a different face. It no longer considered me a citizen. I had no reason to stay – not family, not the weather, not the food. It was not special any more.”

Mammone does miss London. “Or at least, a nostalgic, romantic vision of London – dynamism and greenery. But I was back for a month this autumn and it’s changed. In Italy there’s a kind of post-pandemic renaissance under way; London feels the opposite. Every day I am more sure I made the right choice.”

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‘I miss my friends, my old teaching job. My husband really misses a good curry’: Joke Qureshi, the Netherlands

After 19 years in Britain, Joke Qureshi has come to spell her name as it’s pronounced in Dutch: Yoka. It’s also the name of the new band she has formed with her British husband, Ray, a year after returning to the Netherlands.

“It hasn’t all been easy,” she says. “I felt like a foreigner in my own country: so much was the same, so much completely different. I didn’t know how things worked. We felt lonely at times, often misunderstood.”

She was disappointed, too, to discover escaping Brexit did not mean escaping some of what drove it. “All the ‘our country is full’ rhetoric, the idea that immigrants are taking people’s jobs, that they are the cause of the housing shortage, only after ‘our’ money – that exists here, too,” she says.

Qureshi landed in London in 2002, aged 29, from Amsterdam. She found a job in a pub, then as a recruiter, then in a travel agency, and spent her weekends gigging. Ray, who drives trucks for a day job, joined the band as a guitarist in 2011. She studied for a social policy degree from the Open University, volunteered with a youth offenders service, and eventually became a special educational needs teacher, a job she loved.

In August 2016, weeks after the referendum, they moved to Kent. “There were still leave posters everywhere,” she says. “In the pub, people would just assume we agreed with them. I felt nervous, unsure what to say. But when we went to see my mum in the Netherlands, everything just felt so easy. I felt like I belonged. Like I didn’t have to pretend. Ray loved it, too.”

When they finally decided to move, in June 2020, it was a scramble: Ray needed to be resident in the Netherlands before the end of the transition period or face a series of complications, including a Dutch language test. But everything fell into place. Before they left, Qureshi found a job in youth care; Ray started driving trucks as soon as they arrived. They found a home with a garden and a workshop for Ray’s hobby, guitar-making.

The pandemic hasn’t made life easier, but they feel on track, Qureshi says. The band is on; a social life beckons. “I miss my friends, I miss my old teaching job, I miss the British blues scene, which was so warm,” she says. “I miss nice Brits. Ray really misses a good curry. But I’m happy we left.”

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‘I miss English pubs. I miss PG Tips. I miss speaking English – I love this language’: Laure Ollivier-Minns, France

English was Ollivier-Minns’ worst subject at school, which is why she came to Britain in 1986, aged 19, to improve it. “I honestly thought I would spend the rest of my life there,” she says. “I loved that country. I embraced the culture. It really was home.”

In more than three decades in the UK, she worked as an au pair, an auxiliary nurse, a French teacher and, finally, as a sculptor, living first in London, then near Great Yarmouth, and – for 24 years – in a “big house with a lovely garden” in Norwich. She married a Briton (“a good man”) and had two children, now 24 and 27.

In September 2018 she moved back to a one-bed house near Nantes, where she grew up and has family and friends. “I had to leave,” she says. “The weight of Brexit became so enormous. The division, the apathy, the sense of betrayal. I couldn’t stay. It became almost physical.”

Her last two years in Britain were “suffocating, unbearable”. The architects of Brexit “stole my friends”, she says – they felt uneasy about the vote and kept their distance afterwards. Brexit also “robbed me of my beautiful home: it no longer felt like home. They tarnished the British values we shared, and soiled me in the process. They left me feeling unsafe.”

Ollivier-Minns didn’t trust the EU settlement scheme. “I could see the discrimination coming, that dangerous ‘us v them’,” she says. “I had to get out.”

Brexit also cost her her marriage. “I fell out of love with the country, then I fell out of love with my husband. So after more than 30 years together, we divorced when I returned to France. It was immensely stressful.”

Rebuilding a new life in France after so long away, wrestling with the bureaucracy and doing up a new home have proved “a huge challenge, but also a distraction”. She has a lot less money. “I ended November with €35 in the bank,” she says.

“I miss my children most. They’re British; they don’t feel in the least French. That’s the biggest sacrifice, a huge sacrifice. I miss English pubs. I miss PG Tips. I miss speaking English – I love this language. I was missing it so much I set up an English conversation group here.”

Yet she remains angry. “I still care about Britain, but the deep feeling of betrayal won’t leave,” she says. “I’m disgusted by what happened, by what’s still happening. But I’m happier out of it. I had to look after myself. There’s no price for freedom and security.”

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I miss my job, my lovely colleagues’: Susanne Aichbauer, Austria

Aichbauer headed back to her native Austria in October last year, with a British partner and daughter in tow. “It was a relief,” she says. “I could have stayed, made the most of it. But I’m so grateful Craig wanted to leave too.”

An inveterate traveller, Aichbauer arrived in the UK in 2001, aged 28, in pursuit of an Irishman she fell for on a motorbike tour of India. She settled in Brighton, working at a museum cafe to fund more road trips. She met Craig in 2009 and travelled around Asia with him for 14 months. Then she became pregnant with Judith, and moved in with Craig’s mother in the Fens. Later they bought a home of their own near Wisbech in Cambridgeshire.

“I trained as a baby swimming teacher and pregnancy yoga instructor, and loved it,” she says. “Craig did warehouse shifts, then found work as a plumber. We had a whole life there. A happy life.”

The referendum was “devastating”. Craig’s whole family had voted leave. The pub no longer felt so friendly. “I got a few ‘When are you going home?’ comments, and I just thought, I don’t have to do this,” Aichbauer says.

“Craig was very honest,” she says. “He just said he didn’t have the guts.” But then Covid shut down her workplace, and in May 2020 Aichbauer took Judith to Austria for six weeks. “We had the best time ever,” she says. “We called Craig every day. But it was an English friend who convinced him. He said it was clear where Britain was heading.” She won’t easily forget the date. “The sixth of July. He called, said he’d spoken to the estate agent, that the house was on the market. From then on, things went really fast.” (They had to move quickly: as with the other British partners of EU nationals, Craig needed to be in Austria before the end of the transition period.)

They were lucky: Aichbauer’s big old family home, now owned by her sister, was mostly used for holiday lets, so they were able to stay. In the Alps, where Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet, most jobs are seasonal, but Aichbauer has found permanent work as an assistant to the local vet, and Craig is working as a plumber. Judith is loving school.

“I have no regrets,” Aichbauer says. “I miss my job, my lovely colleagues. Craig struggles a bit with the winter, the sheer weight of the snow. But you look where Britain’s heading now and you think, I wouldn’t have been true to myself if I’d stayed.”

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‘I miss the openness, the tolerance – I miss my idea of Britain as it was, before Brexit’: Eva Pavelková, the Czech Republic

Pavelková is back where she began, in Prague, and there’s not a lot she misses about the country that was her home for 15 years. “I’m not a big tea-drinker,” she says. “I do miss the openness, the tolerance – at least, I miss my idea of Britain as it was, before Brexit.”

Pavelková left for the UK after graduating from vet school in the Czech Republic in 2006. She found work in Lancashire; it was hard to begin with. But after a spell travelling, she returned in 2010, settling in Cheshire, qualifying as a veterinary cardiologist in 2014, then working in an animal hospital in Manchester.

“I think I was a bit naive about Brexit,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would be so stupid as to vote leave. But I started to worry as the referendum neared, and people around me started saying they would.”

The outcome was, Pavelková says, “a life-changing event. It completely threw me. I panicked about the implications – for my job, my work, free movement. It was clear EU citizens would never have the same status, that the country wouldn’t be the same.”

She overheard a nurse telling a colleague she had voted out “because I don’t like the immigrants”. A neighbour asked when she was leaving. A client who brought his dog in was proudly sporting an “I voted leave” T-shirt.

“The whole atmosphere was different,” Pavelková says. She applied for permanent residency in the UK – before realising she didn’t qualify because she had not had private health insurance while she was studying.

Then, in 2018, she met her British husband, Stuart. “I’d calmed down a bit by then,” Pavelková says. “But neither of us felt our future was in the UK. Neither of us liked where the country was going. We decided to leave in January 2020, and we knew we’d have to be gone by the end of the year.”

Pavelková applied for British citizenship. She says: “I’m not proud of having dual nationality; it was necessary just to keep the rights I already had.” But last December the couple moved to Prague. She has set up her own veterinary cardiology practice, and Stuart, an environmental officer in the UK, is working from home.

Pavelková has returned a few times since then for locum stints, but has mixed feelings. “I do miss my colleagues; we’re a small, close, very friendly community,” she says. “I love seeing my friends and family. But Britain has changed. Life is cheaper here in Prague, and easier. The quality of life’s better. We’re happier.”

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