A new topic of conversation is doing the rounds of the bars of Canary Wharf and the dinner parties of South Kensington: citizenship. Specifically, should continental European bankers working in the City of London become British citizens in case the UK votes ‘no’ in a European referendum?
“All my friends are talking about getting British nationality,” says one 30-year-old French finance professional, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ve been here for five years or more and the logic is that if the UK leaves the EU and you were required to get a visa, it would be a pain. It’s not that we feel more British, it’s just that we plan to keep on working here.”
Another French banking analyst, also speaking off the record, says he’s fine in London as he has an English wife, but that a French friend is in the process of applying for nationality to ensure that he can stay in the country. Greek bankers face the biggest issue in the immediate term, he suggests – if Greece exits the EU suddenly, their position in London will be unclear.
A Swedish executive director who works for a boutique firm in the City, also speaking anonymously, said people are less worried about tightening visa restrictions than peeved about the debate around the level of immigration. “There’s a lot of populism that doesn’t really have any grounding in reality,” he complains.
Under UK nationality requirements, foreign nationals who’ve spent five years or more working in the UK are eligible to apply for British citizenship. Rose Carey, immigration partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, says many of them do so as a matter of course. Carey says she hasn’t noticed a rise in citizenship applications – yet.
There may be good reason why EU bankers in London are talking about becoming citizens but not acting upon it. Chirantan Barua, a banking analyst at Bernstein Research who gained British citizenship last year, says that even if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will take three to five years to come into effect. “There will be a lot of treaties to be negotiated. This isn’t going to be an instant process,” he says.
In the meantime, rumours are circulating that banks in London are looking at their options. “A friend of mine at J.P. Morgan told me they’d looked at moving to Switzerland a few years ago,” says one French banker. “It’s expensive there, but you can live over the border and commute in.”
Barua says he’s spoken to Dublin-based commercial real estate professionals who say there are more and more banks scouting out the cost of transferring front office activities to the Irish city. “It makes sense,” he tells us. “London and Dublin are in the same timezone and Dublin is considerably more cost-effective. There are already a lot of middle and back office guys in Dublin and it’s possible that front office jobs will move there too. Investment banks will take a no-vote in the EU referendum as an opportunity. It’s hard to say to front office bankers that they need to move to Dublin, but it’s easier to tell them to move when there’s a political reason for doing so.”
Whether banks leave the City or not, the French banking analyst said a no-vote in the referendum is a real possibility. “From the perception of the average citizen, the European Union has been a failure,” he says. “If the Germans and the French are not going to flexible about Britain’s role in the EU, it’s possible that people will vote to leave. This is real.”