‘I guess I’m an immigrant, but I don’t think of myself like that. Especially in London, a lot of immigrants are highly educated and have good jobs. I think ‘immigrant’ is a word with a negative connotation. An immigrant goes to a country to search for a better future; an expat is asked to come. I was asked to come.’
Andrea is probably the most mundane ‘immigrant’ I have interviewed so far. Originally from Milan, he came to London to teach Global Markets at the city’s Imperial College. Over the last few decades he has travelled between London, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to teach students about international economics. We meet up in the contemporary building of the university where he seems to be a well-recognized professor, based on the many friendly nods he receives as we walk through the narrow hallways towards his office.
I can imagine that in many countries, an immigrant will always feel like a stranger. It’s quite different in international cities like New York and London, isn’t it ?
‘Definitely. London and New York are two cities where the foreigners have become the locals. For instance, I married a British woman. Last Christmas we went to visit her family in the countryside. As we drove downtown, I expected a huge traffic jam because of the holidays. It was deserted.’ Andrea raises his hand with widened eyes, as if he found himself in shock all over again.
I understand. All the foreign citizens went home to their families in other countries.
‘Exactly! It was empty, the whole downtown of London. We drove further down into suburbia, a poorer part of London. And that’s where we found the traffic jams; that’s where the Brits live. That’s when we realized that even more than ten years ago, London has really become a cosmopolitan city. London has evolved, mutated if you will. It has developed its own micro-culture. This has also had an impact on the way English people interact with us expats. I think they’re proud of the change, they see the mutual benefits.’
What are those benefits, apart from meeting people from other cultures?
‘It’s an extraordinary city with an unlimited canvas of ideas and beliefs, which very few places in the world can match. When you’re in IT, obviously Silicon Valley in the US is the summit of opportunities. But London has a Silicon Valley as well, and in addition to that it has an art centre, a music centre, a financial centre. It’s a very complete city that is trying to cater to and provide resources and opportunities, in order to attract the best people.’
They’re actively doing that? Via a tax regime?
‘For instance. If you’re a foreigner, you can work here and keep your foreign domicile. If you earn income abroad as long as you keep it abroad you don’t have to pay taxes. It’s a very explicit policy to attract talent. Sometimes, this is challenged because of the fiscal difficulties some countries have, especially in their policy to raise more taxes.’
Andrea’s office is small, yet very tastefully decorated. The room is lit by a few big lampshades in the corners, the walls are covered with modern art and retro film posters. The speakers on his cabinet fill the room with soft classical music, which is occasionally drowned out by the sounds of busy London traffic through the open window.
When you speak to Brits about Europe, they say ‘We’re not Europe; Europe is the continent’. They don’t feel part of Europe, but perhaps that is different for London people? Maybe they feel more European? ‘I think the whole island is sceptical towards Europe.’
They have the opportunity to leave the EU in 2020.
‘Most likely they will, yes’, Andrea mumbles with a wry smile.
Do you really think they’d vote against Europe during the referendum? Don’t you think the financial heart of England will be dissuaded by the disadvantages of leaving?
‘Look, it depends very much on how much Europe forces England to adopt European rules. I think it’s fair to say that England and Europe have two very different approaches when it comes to finances. It’s very clear in the way the ECB and the Bank of England have addressed the crisis. The Bank of England started to talk about it very early on, the ECB has only now started. Also, the fact that they have their own currency allows England to absorb economic shocks through a flexible exchange rate. Something that would be much more difficult if England were to join the Eurozone. So I think it’s not just an abstract statement to say that Brits feel different. Their economic policies have been practised very differently in the last 6 years.’
And which policy is regarded as the more successful?
A somewhat scornful smile appears on Andrea’s face. ‘Well, there’s one data point which speaks pretty loudly, which is economic growth in the last 6 months, and they’re completely different. The UK has started to grow again, while Europe’s growth is stagnating. Today, we’re talking about deflation. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a process of separation.’
Because the English see they don’t need Europe? You can handle a crisis on your own.
‘That’s right.’ Andrea shrugs his shoulders and takes a sip of his coffee. Looking at him, I realize he’s right about not being an immigrant. He has become a real Brit.
Do you feel European?
Andrea ‘I came back from Milan two days ago, and I loved being there. I feel really a belonging to that environment. At the same time, I feel very happy to be an international citizen. I’m happy to have established my roots in London, but I will always be Italian.’
What would that European identity look like, if there is such a thing?
‘I think there is no European identity. Honestly I don’t buy the whole idea of “being European’ Andrea says, air-quoting the words. ‘If I were to give a positive description of being European, I think it’s the awareness of belonging to a common home while respecting our differences. Which I tremendously enjoy, by the way. We can enjoy so many different cultures at such short distance, which makes us different from the US and China. Those are monoculture countries. So I think the beauty of Europe is its diversity.’
Are there other things that bond us Europeans?
I think religion is an important way, as it’s one of the oldest ways to make the distinction between good and bad. The other thing is that we have a social awareness and tax system that wants to establish a society which is fair to some extent. It’s truly gives an opportunity to everybody, which is very different from America where the system is based on competition. Plus, in most countries we have good education at really low costs.’
Education isn’t free in England, right?
‘Technically no, but practically yes. In the last few years tuitions have increased, but if you compare the tuitions a Brit pays to get access to a very good high school or university, to what an American would pay, it’s a massive difference.’
I heard that you wanted to enlist your son at a school, but that he was rejected because of his birthday. I heard that some women actually plan C-sections to get their future children into the right schools.
Andrea laughs out loud, his green eyes twinkling. ‘True, but that’s actually an interesting point. The Brits want to be fair. If you have a thousand applications for a school, you have to use some kind of quota. One possibility is to increase the tuitions; doubling the tuitions will make the demand drop, and nobody will complaint. But that’s not what they want, they want education to stay accessible. So they apply the ‘first come, first served-system’, counting from the first of every month. My son was born on the 27th, so he’s out. It’s a way to clear a tight market, without selecting children on the basis of achievement.’
Observing him as he speaks, I notice Andrea looks the part. Between his dress shirt and suit-jacket he wears a thin body warmer. His look is rounded off with a pair of Asics and a casually brushed back hairstyle. You can take the Italian out of the country, but you can’t take the stylishness out of the Italian.
You just mentioned that England handled the crisis better than the EU. How is the EU doing in general? Where could they improve?
‘One big challenge for the EU is that it’s based on a monetary union without a fiscal union. We knew this was a challenge from the beginning, but it has never been properly addressed. There have definitely been massive gains for all countries involved in the last fifteen years but the problem is that the countries that are in trouble have a very different economic structure than some of the other countries. Take my country. Italy is only now thinking about reforming their labour market and introducing elements of liberalization that were introduced much earlier in England and Germany. I think Europe was too weak in imposing a greater sense of urgency to implement those reforms.’
Why is that?
‘Because the EU a very weak political entity. It’s very difficult having a common monetary policy without having a stronger political entity that creates a strong sense of urgency in times of crisis. The Italians would simply not accept pressure from Brussels and the same thing will be true for pretty much any other country I know. It’s an issue of sovereignty, so each country has not relinquished sovereignty.’
You sound a bit pessimistic about the future of this European project.
Andrea sits back and takes a sigh. ‘Unfortunately now, unlike in 2011, we’ve seen the growth of several populist parties. So there’s a lot of resentment, pretty much everywhere in Europe. For the wrong reasons, if you ask me. But this ever-growing voice makes it even harder for EU countries to relinquish sovereignty to Europe.’
I’m a social journalist, and I hope to somehow make a modest contribution to social cohesion within Europe, because I think that if the Greeks and the Germans got to know each other, they would trust each other more. And the whole thing would work better. Do you think that might work?
‘I think so. But it’s also a matter of leadership. Yesterday, Kerry gave a speech to the press in French, and in New York people sang La Marseillaise to pay respect to the victims of the Paris attacks. It’s interesting, the fact that the Americans start to sing the French national anthem, when ten years ago they changed the name of French fries to Freedom Fries out of anti-French sentiment. But this idea of united in our diversity, that’s what we need more of.’
(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Moerman)