In the year since the United Kingdom voted narrowly to leave the European Union, much media attention has been devoted to the increase in numbers of UK citizens applying to become citizens of other EU countries. Ireland has been one obvious candidate given how many people have some kind of Irish family connection, but Germany has been high on the list too, with features on people descended from holocaust survivors making the decision to reclaim their German Citizenship under the terms of their Basic Law.
Even with headlines such as the German Embassy in London reporting a ten-fold increase in applications after the Brexit vote, the total actual number of UK citizens doing this remains relatively small compared to the three million EU citizens currently in the UK who are now seeing the realities of our decision last year coming through and are beginning to seriously consider their position. This will be the real Brexodus, and many highly-educated and skilled EU citizens are already making plans.
In a study published in June by consultancy firm Deloitte, one third of non-British workers are considering leaving the UK, with highly skilled workers from the EU most likely to go – some 47% were found to be considering leaving the UK in the next five years. Overall, some 36% of non-British workers said they were thinking of leaving within the same period, representing 1.2 million workers that are currently based in the UK.
A month earlier and research by Lloyds Bank found that 52% of 1,500 UK companies questioned said they had experienced difficulty in recruiting skilled labour during the past six months, compared with 31% in January. Even the National Farmers’ Union warned that the number of seasonal unskilled workers coming to the UK this year had dropped by 17%, potentially causing significant problems for that sector too.
These figures appear to have come as a shock to some sections of both the UK media and industry, but they really should be no surprise. As author Joris Luyendijk commented in an excellent piece in UK newspaper The Guardian recently, “Who would sacrifice EU citizenship for life in a country we now know could turn on us at any moment?”. Given that both major UK political parties now appear committed to leaving the single market and customs union as part of what many term a “hard Brexit”, Luyendijk quite rightly goes on to comment that “more and more well-educated EU nationals are realising they have chosen the wrong country in which to build a life.”
After the UK referendum vote last June, we decided to offer two young “Brexiles” an opportunity to come and work with us in Berlin to support our UK and other international clients who are looking to establish a full or part-time base here, and both Amy and Joe have become an invaluable part of our international team that now also includes Chinese, US and Australian members and reflects the diversity of the city. If 1.2 million EU nationals are now potentially looking at relocating from the UK back to the European mainland, is Berlin ready to receive its share of the next wave of incomers?
Of course Germany has very recent experience of taking in large numbers of people in a short period of time, having been a very generous recipient of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Berlin took its fair share of these new arrivals too, but the kind of migration that the UK’s departure from the European Union is likely to trigger will be slower but more sustained. As the capital of the EU’s largest economy and with a deserved international reputation for being a tolerant, diverse and culturally rich city, Berlin is likely to be high on many returning EU citizens lists of places to relocate.
After 30 years of no or low population growth, Berlin is now seeing an annual population increase of close to 2% according to latest official figures. Berlin is the second most populous city in the EU - as calculated by city-proper population and not by area - totalling just over 3.6 million as of 31st December 2015. You don’t have to spend much time in the city to hear complaints about how much it is changing and how many new people are arriving, but for someone like myself who grew up and has spent most of their life in London, Berlin feels nothing like as cramped or built-up. While I have been a regular visitor to Berlin since the 90’s, I only finally ended up buying a home their in the last few years. Where I have ended up living – next to Tierpark in an eastern borough of the city called Lichtenberg – was quite different to where I imagined buying a property, but has opened my eyes to the many other parts of the city most visitors – even regular ones – do not venture into. You do not have to travel far from the best-known districts such as Charlottenburg, Prenzlaur Berg, Kreutzberg or Mitte to find places that offer a great quality of life and are still only 15-20 minutes from the centre.
Like the city’s population, property prices have also been on the rise, albeit from historically low levels, and while they are catching up with other major cities, they remain cheaper than the likes of Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, let alone the crazy prices that are now being asked for properties in London. Even in very popular central areas of the city I am amazed how many empty plots of previously developed land – what we call ‘brownfield’ sites in the UK – remain and are only slowly now being built on. While prices in these areas are starting to look like what you would expect to pay in a major European city, again you don’t have to go far – as many canny Berliners are doing – to find good value.
For these reasons – and also the long-term and controlled rental market – Berlin should manage to avoid the property price bubble that has made other cities unaffordable even to decently paid professionals. Yes, it would struggle if all 1.2 million EU citizens currently thinking about leaving the UK all decided to relocate there at once, but for those who do decide to make this fascinating and ever-changing city their home, we are ready to welcome you.
Text by Clive Gross in collaboration with Black Label Properties.