I was pretty vocal about being anti-Brexit before the Referendum vote.
Of course I would be: an Estonian immigrant living in London, working in tech. A beneficiary of the free movement of talent in the EU, both as an individual and as someone building a business here. Of our 100-strong team in London, half are British, a third are from mainland Europe, with others from the US, Latin America, all over the world… We’re a global company.
We also benefit from “passporting”: because we’re regulated here in the UK by the FCA, we’re regulated all across Europe. That made setting up and growing our business much easier.
So, for me, membership of the EU seemed like a no-brainer. And despite all the rhetoric ahead of the vote, I thought common sense would prevail. But then the vote happened — and the UK made its decision to leave. Like everyone around me in London, I was shocked.
On Friday afternoon, when we were all still trying to come to terms with the decision, I had to get on a plane to China.
On the plane, I got chatting to one of the crew. Let’s call her Sarah. She told me that she had voted “Leave” and, genuinely curious — I hadn’t met anyone else who had voted Leave which says something about the London bubble — I asked her why.
It turned out there were a few reasons: the main one was fear about what she saw as the impact on her country of immigration. She saw it as a negative force on everything from the education her child would receive, to infrastructure and the burden on the NHS. Even the countryside that would be lost to house-building to accommodate newcomers. The other main factor was the feeling that Europe “controlled” what the UK could and could not do — and she felt the country would make better decisions on its own. She would rather be poorer out of Europe, than richer and in.
I explained how being part of Europe had benefitted ours and many other businesses. She hadn’t heard those arguments before. The thing that really struck me was that she was really surprised — and grateful — that I and my colleague (who voted Remain) wanted to understand her decision. She definitely did not feel that her voice had been heard before the vote.
I didn’t realise the strength of sentiment that was being felt outside of London or the division and alienation that people felt.
It’s pretty intense. Watching the debate play out in the media from afar has brought home how the divisions within the UK meant that it would not cross borders to join Europe.
There seems to be a lot of reflection in the UK about how the nation could have got to this point and be so divided. I believe that conversation is being held all over Europe. Maybe there will be more referendums to come.
Five years ago, we chose to base TransferWise here in the UK — and we’ll continue that plan. I don’t know if it’s going to be possible long-term. No-one knows what comes next. But if we can, we’ll make it happen. And if we can help to grow the UK economy and help it stay competitive at a time when it needs it most, we will.
But this teaches us that at times like this when fear, not hope, dominates the discussion we need to put extra effort into communication. As I learned from talking to Sarah, the real arguments did not make it across the imaginary line that divides London from the rest of the UK (excepting Scotland and NI).
Immigration is part of the solution we need, not the problem. Without immigration, nations would stagnate. It is key for innovation and for economic growth.