Trip no.4: Pilgrimage back home to London

Keywords: expat, skills shortage, tourism, London, xenophobia, Britain, Eurocity
Borders crossed: 2×2

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         During my semester in Sweden I twice had to make a pilgrimage back to my hometown of London for a significant event or an interview. Aside from the flight being a little time-consuming, it was otherwise not too inconvenient, as there are roughly 30 direct flights daily between Stockholm’s four airports and London’s six, with prices as low as £27 for a return trip. With over 8 million inhabitants, London is the largest city in the European Union, over twice the size of its runner-up Berlin, and according to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index it hosts 19.88 million foreign overnight visitors per year, making it not only the most popular city for tourism in the EU, but also second in the world (beaten to the top spot by Bangkok).[1]

         Red phoneboxes and double-decker buses, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Beefeaters outside Buckingham Palace and the Royal Family all attract tourists in the millions, who are vital to the city’s economy. Ironically enough, the tourist board Visit Britain have capitalised on the pound’s weaker value since the 2016 referendum to advertise and attract yet more tourists than usual.[2] These inbound visitors mostly arrive in the nation’s capital via one of the major London airports, often greeted first and foremost with a queue for border control that, if they’re coming from an EU country, is something of a new sight for them.

         While tourist numbers in the UK are growing healthily and souvenir stall sales of Union Jack keyrings remain buoyant, the number of EU citizens living in the UK is already beginning to shrink, as 117,000 EU workers headed back home or elsewhere in 2016, as a result of the ongoing uncertainty over their long-term status in the UK.[3] A recent Deloitte report suggested that 47% of highly skilled EU workers in the UK were considering leaving over the next 5 years due to this uncertainty.[4] Others no feel longer welcome in the UK, for example after large numbers of Polish residents in particular experienced xenophobic abuse and threats in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum. As a result, there are grave concerns over how the UK will meet the skills shortage and fill the jobs currently occupied by 3.2 million EU citizens if more continue to leave, particularly as the more highly-skilled people depart.

         Of course, London is something of an exception in Britain, with its extremely multicultural workforce and its tolerant open atmosphere, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan is keen to emphasise and as is demonstrated by fact that 60% of London’s population voted to remain in the EU.[5] London appeals to the highly-educated and very highest-skilled EU workers – the ‘Eurostars’ are attracted to a veritable ‘Eurocity’ – according to sociologist Adrian Favell.[6] London’s reputation as a multicultural environment stems from two separate periods of freedom of movement: firstly that of the Commonwealth until 1962, accepting thousands of Jamaicans, Pakistanis and others from the former colonies; and secondly, that of the European Economic Community (later the EU) from 1973 until 2019.[7] There have in fact only ever been 11 years in which Britain has had actual ‘control’ over its borders, in the period between 1962-1973, so the mantra of ‘take back control’ seems somewhat historically inaccurate…

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[1] Yuwa Hedrick-Wong and Desmond Choong, “Global Destination Cities Index,” Mastercard, accessed July 15, 2017, https://newsroom.mastercard.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/FINAL-Global-Destination-Cities-Index-Report.pdf.
[2] Dan Peltier, “Visit Britain Has a New Marketing Campaign, But Deal-Seekers Were Coming Anyway,” Skift, last modified October 13, 2016, https://skift.com/2016/10/13/visit-britain-has-a-new-marketing-campaign-but-deal-seekers-were-coming-anyway/.
[3] Gemma Tetlow, “Number of EU nationals working in the UK starts to fall,” Financial Times, last modified February 15, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/1e5d5330-f37f-11e6-8758-6876151821a6; Jon Henley, “’A bit of me is dying. But I can’t stay’: the EU nationals exiting Britain,” The Guardian, last modified July 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jul/28/brexit-the-eu-nationals-exiting-britain-a-bit-of-me-is-dying-but-i-cant-stay.
[4] Katie Allen, “Almost half of highly skilled EU workers ‘could leave UK within five years’,” The Guardian, last modified June 27, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/27/eu-workers-leave-uk-deloitte-brexit.
[5] “EU referendum results,” The Electoral Commission, accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information.
[6] Adrian Favell, Eurostars and Eurocities: Free Movement and Mobility in an Integrating Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).
[7] Colin Yeo, “Freedom of movement didn’t start with the EU – it’s the norm for Britain,” New Statesman, last modified May 25, 2017, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/05/freedom-movement-didnt-start-eu-its-norm-britain.

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