LONDON (AP) — Brexit. It’s coming, but no one knows what form it will take. Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to fire the starting pistols within days, leading to at least two years of complex negotiations between Britain and 27 other European Union nations with competing interests.
The results will redefine Britain’s role outside the EU, transform immigration and trade laws, and affect everything from intelligence sharing to the classification of bananas.
Brexit hasn’t happened yet. The formal process is about to begin. But the June 23 referendum in which Britons voted to leave the EU is already having an immense impact on peoples’ lives. Not because of what they know about Brexit, but because of what they don’t.
Five people — three in Britain, two in continental Europe — tell how they are coping with the uncertainty:
THE GERMAN ACADEMIC
German-born Henning Meyer and his German wife have lived in London long enough to easily qualify for British nationality. And it’s likely the British government will eventually decide to allow EU nationals already living in Britain to stay even after the split, so they could probably live here even without U.K. passports.
But the Meyers are leaving. They are building a small home in Berlin and selling their place just north of London. They no longer feel welcome here and they believe London’s role as a vital international hub will soon shrivel.
“If you’re not allowed to live here as Germans, there is no reason for us to be here,” says Meyer, 38.
They took six months to decide to abandon Britain — a move shaped by the belief that something fundamental had been altered in the tolerant, multi-cultural society they had embraced.
“It’s not just the immediate reaction after the referendum,” he said. “You know everybody knows what happened to — not me personally — but Polish citizens or others who have been subject to abuse or even worse. So what also changed is how the referendum campaign altered the public discourse in this country. Because it was a shameful campaign and it has made stereotyping xenophobia mainstream.”
He said some friends no longer feel comfortable speaking German with their children on London streets, and others try to conceal their Polish or German identities. Meyer doesn’t want to live that way.
THE LATVIAN STUDENT
Katrina Rubina’s dream is almost in her grasp. She fears Brexit will snatch it away.
The 18-year-old high school student’s cherished goal — call it an obsession — is to study in Britain, a country with a proud tradition of academic rigor that regularly turns out skilled graduates who can compete in Europe’s tight job market.
“I’ve been dreaming about studying in the U.K. for a long time,” Rubina says. “Since I was 6 years old, purely because of Harry Potter. At first I imagined everything there is like that, but of course it is not. But I never lost that dream. U.K. symbolizes for me a new beginning. I can leave everything I did here in Latvia and take only the things that I want with me to the U.K.”
Her fear is that Brexit will shortly make it much harder for students from other European countries to study in Britain. She anticipates many roadblocks: New visa rules, rather than the border-free travel Latvians and other EU citizens now enjoy, a hike in tuition for non-British students and, most importantly, a sharp cut in scholarships for EU students.
That’s made getting to Britain a now-or-never proposition. She and many other Latvian hopefuls are flooding British universities with applications — academic officials note a marked increase since the referendum.
She has been provisionally accepted at the Royal Holloway in London to study international business, but needs an excellent showing on her final round of exams. Her counselor has told her she must study still harder — competition has increased because so many students are trying to get to Britain before the rules change.
“I’m not going to give up all my hard work just because there is Brexit,” she says. “I’m going to find a way to get there anyway.”
THE MAN OF STEEL
John Reid & Sons is looking to hire six people at its steel fabrication plant in southern England — and managing director Simon Boyd thinks the 98-year-old company’s expansion is a Brexit blessing.
He has argued for years that membership in the EU was holding Britain back because of a welter of regulations. The day Brexit comes into full force, he says, will be the day when Britain is liberated from unwanted workplace rules and the capricious dictates of the European Court of Justice.
He knows that in a legal sense nothing has changed, that the implementation of Brexit is at least several years away, but thinks the business climate has dramatically improved now that the end of EU regulation — overregulation in his view — is in sight.
The midsize firm he runs is already reaping benefits — the falling value of the British pound since the Brexit vote has helped its exports — and the company’s largest ever expansion project is being planned in consultation with local officials. The 56-year-old Boyd, who started his career making tea and sweeping floors, says orders and inquiries for major projects increased after the referendum vote and should shoot still higher in the coming years.
“I think government is in an excellent position to negotiate a really good deal with our European friends, and we can get out of this really damaging European Union,” says Boyd, who chafes at the way European workplace rules hamper his flexibility in a business that is cyclical by nature.
“I can’t see anything other than positive possibilities,” Boyd says.
THE BRITISH RETIREE IN SPAIN
If Brexit means that retirees Karen and Peter Watling have to leave the Mediterranean coast of Spain to return to the British Midlands, expect them to be kicking and screaming on the plane back home.
“I would hate it. He would hate it,” says Karen Watling, 70. “It’s not what we chose to do.”
Their decision to retire in Spain after long careers in England made perfect sense — before Brexit. They enjoy a reciprocal health care arrangement between Britain and Spain that allows them to receive free medical care and medication, which is crucial because Peter, also 70, has a serious ailment.
Karen Watling doesn’t expect the health care agreement between the two EU countries to survive Brexit, which would force them to seek government-sponsored health insurance in Spain or reluctantly move back to England.
“For us it would be a disaster because it would be well over 300 euros a month plus medication,” she says of the insurance she would need in Spain. “We wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Brexit has already hit their purchasing power. Their pensions are paid in British pounds, which have, since the referendum, dropped by about 15 percent in relation to the euro.
Karen Watling says she has been anxious and tearful since June 23. She is angry at the government — believing that Britons living in other EU countries are being used as a bargaining chip — and mortified by what the referendum results say about the country where she worked as a teacher for decades.
“I’m certainly not proud of what Britain seems to have become,” she says. “Britain is never going to be Great Britain again.”
THE ITALIAN LONDONER
Brexit has cost Marco Vineis money, plenty of money each month as the cost of importing meats and cheese from Italy has risen because of the drop in value of the British pound. But the founder of Gastronomica seems most upset by Brexit’s emotional pain, not its financial toll.
“I feel myself quite a Londoner, even if I wasn’t born here,” says Vineis, 52, in his salami- and cheese-filled deli, where the aroma of rich Italian espresso lingers. “Now I feel myself a bit of a foreigner. So, this feeling I don’t like it a lot. This is after 25 years I’ve been here.”
He expects his business to survive, even if he has to start selling English cheddar rather than pay the high cost of importing Italian pecorino. But he is baffled — and hurt — by Britain’s decision to break away.
“Before Brexit, we didn’t think it would change so much,” he says. “People didn’t realize how many rights people living in Europe get. The freedom to go from country to country without a border. It is a moment to reflect about our condition. It means that after years of war and conflict and fighting we reach this wonderful system, and we should not lose it. I don’t know why they are doing this.”