I moved from London to Europe a year ago. It was the right decision.
I’m just about to turn 32. In that relatively short lifetime, I’ve lived in Russian, Britain, Romania, Portugal and Spain. The outcome of the Brexit referendum does not surprise me.
Fundamentally, I believe that we are where we are because the UK has become a leader as a place to work and make money. On the flipside, it has become a loser for anyone that wants to make it their home. My realisation of this led me to leave Britain and move to Mainland Europe last year.
Looking back at my life today, I realise it has been quite unique: I’m both an insider and an outsider in the UK, Europe and Russia. For what it’s worth, I’ve sat down today to reflect on this journey since it has dawned on me that I share the same frustrations that many people in Britain do today. Whether by luck or by means, I chose to solve those frustrations by moving to the mainland and embracing the European Union. And therefore, I argue, on a very human and day to day level, the UK’s government needs to change their ways for the good of their own citizens.
My short life story
I was born in Moscow, when that part of the world was still the Soviet Union, in 1984. I moved to London with my parents in 1991. We gradually moved further out into the suburbs as we went from being a family with literally nothing, to being able to buy a car as a result of my dad’s hard work. That enabled us to start doing some day trips at the weekend to see different regions within the UK, before we had been granted residency status and couldn’t leave the country with ease. We saw pretty much everything in between Land’s End in Cornwall to Edinburgh in Scotland and thoroughly enjoyed those trips — Britain to us was a wonderful country and we loved the feeling of freedom and opportunity as we travelled around it.
We later moved northwards towards Cambridge and there I remember the day finally came — we applied for and received our UK citizenship and passports. Of course, this enabled my parents to begin enjoying their new-found freedom of being able to travel to another country without the Soviet-style restrictions they’d been subject to until then. Over the next few years we visited pretty much every country in Northern Europe on driving holidays.
In 2003, I went to study Politics in Sheffield — a location I chose for two reasons: at the time the University there was ranked as having the best department for the subject and because I was curious about the North of England, having spent my life so far in the South. Later, having met friends from all over Europe during my studies, I spent a good deal of time taking cheap flights to visit them in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. I later went and taught English in Romania and then undertook an amazing project to travel from Turkey through Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland to Germany while finding out about the local cuisine of each area to create a collection of East European recipes.
All of those trips to Europe were deep insights into the way people lived across Europe. It was also always evident to me that Britain was somehow different to the rest of the continent. The architecture, the mindset, the food, the approach to business and family. For whatever reason, maybe due to my origins, I tended to feel more comfortable with the surroundings on the mainland, although it was never something that was particularly front of mind for long.
My short career story
My travels became less frequent as I began my career in London in 2007. Those were really good times even though, as we all know, from 2008 things became more difficult as austerity moved in. I loved working in London. The opportunities for people like me, just out of University, were fantastic — it seemed like there was always work if you wanted it, each day brought new challenges, experiences and lessons. The social life, if you wanted it, could keep you busy every day of the week. Conversations with friends in Europe suggested that I had it easier than most; life was definitely not so simple in Berlin, Paris and Madrid at that time — opportunities for young people were far more difficult to find. A lot of the people I knew were struggling to find anything they were even remotely interested in for work.
A couple of years later, I was feeling like I’d hit my personal ceiling at work, and needed to be more challenged. Making that happen was not difficult. There was a college within the University of London that specialised in part-time, after work programmes. Using money I’d saved up, I was able to pay for and study towards a graduate diploma in Economics, which helped the direction of my career immensely.
Even better for me, the startup scene in London was just emerging as I was finishing the course. It was the place for someone curious and hyperactive to thrive, and I threw myself in at the deep end. I lived for the challenges that work and academic curiosity threw at me every day.
Around the same time, my parents moved to Portugal and I started to travel to Southern Europe quite frequently. The slower pace of life there, frankly, frustrated me at the time. As a Londoner, I was always in a rush to do and see more. But, it wasn’t too long until I realised the fundamental difference between my life in London and the life of people across most of mainland Europe:
London, it occurred to me, was ideal for working.
Mainland Europe, it dawned on me, was ideal for living.
And it was around this time, 2011, that life started to get noticeably more difficult in London. Good jobs were harder to come by, although there were plenty of “alright” ones. Prices of property rental and groceries were noticeably higher. I was certainly feeling worse off than 3 years ago and seeing that a larger portion of my income was going on just staying alive. London also started to feel more crowded. Streets and trains were becoming noticeably more packed. It felt as though people were becoming grumpier as the daily grind got harder for most and chiselled at their nerves. Of course, what was playing out here were the repercussions of the 2008 financial crash and a growing population in the UK as people migrated from the rest of Europe (and further afield) to find work since there were far fewer opportunities for them back at home.
If you spoke with people who had moved from abroad to London, they’d almost certainly tell you they did it for work. They’d usually also tell you that they loved London for its culture, history, diversity… all the usual things people tend to cite. But, they’d also typically say that they expected to be returning to their homeland at some point either because they had a deeper connection with it, or because the quality of life there was somehow better.
What’s attractive about the UK, particularly London
The European common market was, by then, clearly working in terms of enabling the freedom of movement for labour. I went in the other direction to most, and started to work within a Portuguese-based company that was keen to set up operations in London. This experience again confirmed just how superior the UK is when it comes to running a business. Compared with Portugal (and indeed to many other countries), you’ll find that running a company in Britain is:
- far quicker and easier in terms of incorporation and administration,
- far easier when it comes to getting a global clientele (London is a global hub, not an out-post),
- cheaper and more predictable in terms of taxes.
All of this is of course ideal when it comes to attracting an international elite who want to create companies and do the majority of their business dealings in the UK because of the ease. These are the circles I was familiar with during my late 20’s, and I can tell you that the people who came to London at this time, whether from the rest of the UK or internationally, were certainly some of the most talented and forward thinking. They were here to build their companies and their careers — but, since many did not start with personal ties to London, they were and always will be free to leave the UK’s shores if the going got tough. And, apparently, that’s already in motion.
Living your life in the UK
So, what’s the situation like if you’ve already made the UK the place where you settle down with your family, or want to? The short answer is that you need a large amount of money to do that comfortably.
It’s simple mathematics to see why:
- Britain’s population density is the 10th highest in Europe (and actually 4th when you discount micro-states). And, even that ranking is probably misleading when you consider that a significant area of Scotland is uninhabited, but figures in the calculation. Housing costs are increasingly crippling, and unaffordable for those without a big bag of cash to get started on the ladder.
- Britain operates a very friendly regime for foreign nationals who wish to buy a house there. As a Russian, it’s not difficult for me to tell you that my fellow countrymen have purchased a significant amount of property in London and the South East. Those familiar with Chinese money flows, will tell you a similar story.
- Britain is also a place where growing enough food to feed the population is becoming more difficult (high population density, rising population, climate).
- There are surely more factors at play, but those seem like the main ones to me and highlight the predicament the UK finds itself in — growing population, growing economy… but negative undertones.
As I saw the age of 30 on the horizon, I felt at a dead end. I was working all day and always tired at the weekends. Like many people based in London, my vacation time and money was spent on getting away from home, not enjoying any kind of life in the city. The way my life was set out felt counter-productive at best, and self-destructive at worst. Happiness felt further and further from my grasp.
My decision to leave the UK
From about 2013, I started to find London utterly unbearable. Ask me to explain exactly what it was that got to me, I couldn’t tell you one point precisely, but that each day simply felt increasingly gloomy.
In 2015, we moved to Barcelona, and I found myself travelling between there and London on an almost weekly basis for work. I found it an incredibly depressing place to visit, of course. The lack of sunny days would hit me hard. The solemn and packed carriages on the tube, the fast pace on the streets. All took their toll on me like never before, now that my non-work life was relaxed and happy. I felt terribly sorry for people who did not have the means to get the best from the new riches that were driving the UK economy and, at the same time, were subject to the “simple mathematics” discussed above.
And, that reality I encountered when travelling to London, is the reason that I believe we are where we are today. The headline statistics that the UK is one of the largest economies in the world, that it has Europe’s most start-up friendly offering, is simply a red herring if you want to understand how people feel about their lives. And this referendum result proves that. What we’ve seen is people who do not participate in the very best this economy has to offer feel like second class citizens in their own country.
Then… and now
I was one of those that the forces at play in the UK (especially in London) over the past few years were good to. I was also fortunate enough to have led a life which makes moving to another country seem like an every day decision. I’ve chosen to move into the heart of the European Union to improve my own personal life after having the best possible years of my career in London.
What is the situation for the people who are about to leave college or University and seek to make their career in the UK today? I believe they have neither the chance to have such a good few first years of their career, nor do they have an opportunity to enjoy a good life in their own country. For that reason, I have told this story. If we do not change the path that the UK is on, they will be a lost generation, and they will look at us with discontent.
What is it we can do? I cannot give you precise actions for sure. Having finally found a place where I feel happy to both feel at home and doing business in, I intend to spend the rest of my days here — both making a living and having a life. Based on that personal experience, I feel it’s vital that the UK focusses its efforts on making its society one where there is more balance between the haves and have-nots, and more focus on people’s quality of life. Otherwise, I fear it will become a ghost island, where people come to reap the quick rewards, and leave to spend the majority of their lives elsewhere.
Living in a relatively prosperous area of the world where, not too long ago, the nearby mountains were hideouts for partizans as a terrible civil war raged, and wounds are still healing, I feel wholeheartedly that it is not the European Union that is destroying the UK for those who want to call it their home, it is those within the country’s house of commons and house of lords, and ultimately us who elect them.