“Yeah, I think it was the right result. I would have voted for it,” said Fabio Esposito, an Italian hospitality worker who lives in London. He was speaking shortly after the result of the 2016 referendum; a European Union citizen seemingly in favour of Brexit.
“You see what they did to Italy,” he told me back then. “During the financial crisis Italy paid a big price, imposed on it by the EU. And then no help at all from Brussels when people began crossing the Mediterranean, rocking up in Italy. Thousands of people. Italy was forced to accept them. If we’d had Brexit, things might have been different.”
Esposito, aged 29, is referring to the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009-10, and the (unconnected) streams of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean desperate to escape conflicts and subsequent poverty in African and Middle East nations. Italy and other eurozone countries in southern Europe were unable to repay or refinance government debt, leading to a joint bailout by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Harsh conditions were attached to the bailouts that left many nations suffering adverse economic conditions and high rates of unemployment. Meanwhile, due to its relative proximity to the African and Middle East coastlines, many of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean ended up on Italian shores.
“We were left cleaning up the mess created by others,” Esposito continued. “That’s what Brexit was about. I’d vote for anything that made my nation’s borders stronger.” Anything? “You have to take care of your own first,” he says. His is, of course, the school of thought that led to the populist heirs of Silvio Berlusconi – the likes of Matteo Salvini and now Giorgia Meloni – rising to power in Italy during the intervening years.
Back in 2016, shortly after the referendum result, I sought out UK-domiciled European Union citizens (and a few from nations hoping to accede to the EU) who, for whatever reason, believed that Brexit was or could be beneficial. Their views were surprising, illuminating and often contradictory. But to a man and woman, they believed Brexit to be “a good thing”. My feature was never published – I couldn’t find a taker for the idea, perhaps the wounds were too raw back then – but nearly seven years down the line I have sought out those same people again to see if their views have changed, or maybe – who knows? – become more entrenched.
Lithuanian Janina Katilius, 27, who worked as a waitress in London, said in 2016: “I thought it was a proud moment. Brexit voters showed patriotism for their country. They didn’t want people from somewhere else telling them how to live their lives. I want Lithuanians to feel the same way. Why shouldn’t we all be proud of where we come from?” I recall pointing out that those who voted Remain also wanted the best for their country. Her reply was that “they flew the other side’s flag though. So their patriotism was based on how rich they could get, not how much they cared about their country.” It seemed a blunt and naïve viewpoint.
In early January I tracked Katilius down to her home town in Lithuania. She had returned home in 2020 when the pandemic struck. “I still think people voted with their hearts,” she tells me. “And now Lithuania fears imminent invasion from Vladimir Putin. I think a vote like Brexit here now would be a show of strength.” I ask her whether unity between the nations of the EU rather than division might be a greater show of strength. “Nato, yes. But the EU would do nothing to protect Lithuania,” she replies. Later, when pushed, she admits Brexit has not gone particularly well, but is still prepared to blame the EU for “punishing Britain”. She tells me, however, that despite her pro-Brexit stance she does not intend to return to Britain. Indeed, she can’t, because her UK pre-settled status has lapsed.
A more nuanced approach to the prospective benefits of Brexit came from Patrycja Kowalczyk-Hammond, 32, a Polish public transport worker who had moved to live and work in Leeds in 2012. “My father remained a committed communist until he died in 2017,” she explains. “He saw the European Union as a free-trade movement – a capitalist club. I pretty much share his opinion. So although I am an internationalist first and foremost, I do believe workers would be better served under a different form of government. Brexit gave Jeremy Corbyn and others the opportunity to create a different kind of society, so on that level I could understand a vote in favour.”
However, Kowalczyk-Hammond was well aware of the circumstances surrounding the referendum. “It was clearly a project of the populist right,” she says. “Look who was running it: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings. It was supported by all the people I am politically opposed to: the BNP, Viktor Orbán, Jobbik, Marine Le Pen and all the worst British tabloid newspapers. It was xenophobic. And people like me were the targets of the xenophobia. So while I would have supported Brexit in certain circumstances, I realised there was no socialist utopia at the end of it. And there wasn’t.”
Kowalczyk-Hammond now lives just outside Leeds with her English husband. “For me Brexit hasn’t made a whole lot of difference, except I’m poorer and it’s more of a hassle to see my family. I still like this country and I love Yorkshire, but I don’t like what its politicians have become. I never thought populism could take hold here, but I see Suella Braverman and Priti Patel – who come from immigration like me – and I see awful people like Mark Francois and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and I just hope that one day Britain will be pragmatic and maybe think about rejoining. I was once 65% for Brexit, now only 25%.”
In 2016 Afonso Gomes, 38, was running a restaurant with his cousin in the West End of London. We met in the week after the referendum. “I don’t really get what it was all about,” he says. “But I think if people make a democratic decision then it is up to them. I didn’t vote, I couldn’t vote, obviously. But if that is what they chose then I stand by that decision. I think it will be good for Britain. No money sent to Brussels, it can be spent here.” It was unclear whether this was something he had read on the side of a bus or whether it was a heartfelt belief. “There is a lot of corruption in the EU,” he expounded. “British people aren’t so corrupt. I can see why they don’t want their money sent into the pockets of foreign politicians. Maybe this is just the start of the EU breaking up.”
I know Gomes’s story well. I often visit the restaurant he ran. In early 2017 he was verbally abused and threatened on the bus for being Portuguese and living in the UK. His hostile antagonist told him to “fuck off home, we voted for Brexit which means no foreign scum”. He might have considered it a one-off, but eventually he tired of being rebuked in his own restaurant by people who had come to eat there strangely disappointed they were being served – in a restaurant serving foreign food – by foreigners. He returned to Portugal in 2021.
His cousin still runs the restaurant. “He was very sensitive,” his cousin tells me. “He’s happier back home.” Does the abuse continue now? “It’s better,” I’m told. “Right after the referendum was the worst. It’s crazy really, we have so many tourists around here, it’s not like we are in some small town that never sees people from abroad. Sometimes we get the odd Brexit-spouting drunk guy. I’m not really sure why they even come in. But I have no intention of leaving. Britain has been good to me. Afonso was very upset by the assault on the bus. It was only verbal, but it bothered him. I’d just argue back.”
Wolfgang Haupt is a 57-year-old Austrian businessman. “Britain is an exceptional country,” he says, using exceptional to mean notably different rather than unsurpassed. “I think Brexit was inevitable and having lived here I agree with it. If you fit in with the culture you appreciate that this is a special place and European notions of government and welfare don’t have the same resonance. You cannot be tethered. How many other countries would put up with the wealth of your monarchy or abstruse parliamentary system or the aristocracy?” Well, indeed. “I would have voted Brexit in an instant, Britain is special,” he said in 2016.
Haupt still works in the City of London today and was reluctant to say more than he said in 2016. “I still agree with my main point,” he says. “Britain is a nation like no other, therefore – like Switzerland, or Andorra, or Liechtenstein – it cannot be tied together with others.” He did, however, admit that although he remained a very wealthy individual personally, Britain’s pre-eminence as a world financial centre was on the line. But again, like others, he was happy to pin the blame on the EU extracting retribution. “De-regulation and lower taxes. They are what will make Brexit a success,’ he promises. “Kwasi Kwarteng probably rushed things, but he was taking advantage of what Brexit can offer,” he adds, referring to the former chancellor’s much-criticised September mini-budget.
Maria Kovalenko is from Ukraine. She is a Russian speaker from the east of the country, who works as a translator. However, she considers herself wholly Ukrainian and is opposed to Russia’s invasion of her country.
In 2016 she looked at Brexit from the perspective of somebody who had lived under the Soviet Union. “I came from a country that was oppressed,” she said. “We wanted to be free, Britain wanted to be free. I have friends in the Conservative Party and they understand well what I am saying.” But where is the EU equivalent of the gulag, where are the walls and wire fences keeping everybody in, I asked her. Where is the KGB? “That’s not the point,” she told me. Surely, though, it was quite significant. Ukraine would not have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union, I argued, not expecting to be as prescient as I now sound. “You watch how this country will grow after Brexit,” she said. “You can make your own political choices now.”
Seven years later, now a member of the Conservative Party, a British citizen and married to a Briton, she is of the opinion that Brexit has faltered, but not that the principle to leave was in any way wrong. “Nobody could have seen the financial crisis after the pandemic or Putin’s illegal war…” Ah, yes, the war in Ukraine. Does she think the European Union is making preparations to invade Britain to take back what it “owned”, as has happened so tragically in her birth country?
“Obviously not,” she says. “But oppression comes in many forms. Prices are rising, queues form at airports and Dover, the pound is worth less against the euro… they fight in different ways.” But surely these are all things that Britain in effect voted for by leaving the EU? “The terms didn’t need to be so harsh,” she says, seemingly forgetting that it was her former party leader who signed the deal that has created these circumstances. Why do you think more nations aren’t trying to leave, I asked. “Other nations would,” she argues, “but how many governments would let their people have a democratic opportunity to vote after the trauma of Brexit?” But surely the opposite is true, many are clamouring to join, including Kovalenko’s own home nation? When Nigel Farage told the European Parliament that Britain leaving was just the start he was demonstrably wrong. “Farage wasn’t Brexit,” she says. “Brexit is about opportunity, Farage is xenophobic.” On one thing we assuredly agree.
Eleni Angelos, 27, a web developer based in London, comes from Greece. Like Esposito, she too is concerned by cross-Mediterranean immigration. “My family lives on Kos, there are camps there. And those people are the ones who will try to get across Europe to England and cross the Channel to work here for free, taking jobs from English people. I know why people voted for Brexit.” She is speaking in 2023 – the small boats “crisis” was not an issue of the same magnitude in 2016. Back then Angelos had argued that “too many people come to the UK just to take jobs from the British population and if they fail they take benefits instead.”
But wasn’t that why she had moved to England? For a job? “Too many prostitutes and drug dealers were allowed in then, it’s no wonder people voted for Brexit. I was a genuine immigrant prepared to work hard, but there weren’t many people like me. It was just those taking advantage of the NHS and free benefits. I filled the gap between those people who live in a council house watching TV and drinking and not working, and the immigrants who just live off benefits.” The Daily Express, it seems, has tentacles that spread all the way to the Greek Aegean.
It looks, however, as if the tide is turning. Support for Brexit is waning among the British population. Why do our group of sometime pro-Brexit EU citizens think that might be? Kovalenko is still adamant: “It’s not Brexit’s fault, it is the fault of the EU and the unexpected crises that happened – Putin and Covid.” Angelos, not surprisingly, agrees. “People see the Channel crossings and think Brexit isn’t working. And they blame their government, instead of the economic migrants in the boats or the people smugglers or the French.”
Kowalczyk-Hammond thinks Brexit has failed because it could never be delivered. “It was always a project of the populist right,” she says. “And their answer is always to blame somebody else – the EU, immigrants, anything – easy targets for easy votes. When I get my British citizenship, which is pending, I’ll vote rejoin if there is ever a second referendum.”
Haupt is insistent that whatever “teething problems” Brexit has caused will be ironed out in “20 years maximum. It’s all new,” he adds. “How could it ever go smoothly?” When confronted with “exact same benefits”, “easiest trade deal in history” and “nobody is talking about leaving the single market”, he declined to expound further.
So what of Esposito? Despite everything that has happened in the intervening years, he is sticking by his guns. “Definitely,” he says. “The small boats crossing the Channel show I was right all along.” He praises subsequent home secretaries attempting to tackle the issue, but thinks they should go further. “You must not let these people in,” he says. “They do not deserve to be here. Deport them without judicial processes, to Rwanda if necessary. Otherwise what was the point of Brexit?”
Brexit, it seems, was many things to many people, and not just to native Britons. Its simple messages of “taking back control” and “the will of the people” seem to resonate widely. Yet, for whatever reason, no other EU nation has yet taken the Article 50 plunge. And whatever the views of some EU passport holders here in the UK, it seems unlikely they ever will.
Some names have been changed.
Michael O’Hare is a freelance journalist, author and editor