Analysis

From dreaded possibility to looming eventuality — Brexit is here: Nahlah Ayed

As official notice of Brexit is given, the feared consequences are already being felt: some EU workers affected aren't waiting to find out what happens, and are moving on. Some have stopped coming to Britain. Both trends have started causing problems for employers, Nahlah Ayed reports.

Threat to freedom of movement sows panic everywhere from health services to music industry

British Prime Minister Theresa May signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk invoking Article 50 and the United Kingdom's intention to leave the EU on Tuesday in London. May plans to ask the EU for a divorce on Wednesday. (Christopher Furlong/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

If, as the Observer newspaper said, the British people are about to be herded off a cliff, then those who run the Georgian House Hotel are among the ones going down kicking and screaming.

With a formal letter from Britain to the EU delivered on WednesdayBrexit is definitively moving away from dreaded possibility, to looming eventuality. And in the Georgian's antique hallways — as it is in the Observer's view — it is a broadside that will spare no one.

Behind reception, a Romanian mother separated from her daughter for months at a time so she could make a decent living here, might as a result of Britain's exit from the European Union be forced to return to a life of just scraping by.

At the helm, a British woman who spent 30 years growing her great-great grandfather's property into a thriving hotel, risks watching it all undone.

In the office, the kitchen, the lobby and the breakfast room, the majority of the people who now make the Georgian hum — 35 EU citizens out of a total of 40 — may simply prove impossible to replace until a new scheme is adopted.

'It's already affecting us,' says hotel owner Serena von der Heyde. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

As a source of employees at all levels, the EU is "completely vital," says owner Serena von der Heyde.

"I can't imagine how we would open our doors and trade if we didn't have our EU employees, and the thought of it is frightening."

At the heart of those fears is the expected withdrawal from a single market that allows for the free movement of goods, services, capital — and crucially — workers.

Shake-up has started

In the wake of a Brexit vote that was strongly motivated by concerns over the movement of migrants, the prime minister has already made it clear Britain's participation in the single market will not survive Brexit negotiations.

Now, as official notice of Brexit is given, the feared consequences are already being felt: some of those directly affected aren't waiting to find out what happens, and are moving on. Some are not coming to begin with. Both have started causing problems here.

A preview of Brexit, in effect, is already playing out, and gradually growing in scope.

The perceptible change is sowing panic in vital sectors such as the National Health Service, where the number of EU nurses joining the service has plummeted significantly since the vote.

They're also worrying in construction, where there is already a notable skills shortage in an industry that employs some 200,000 EU nationals.

In the cultural arena, one EU orchestra has already decided to leave, and others are seriously considering it. In the hospitality sector, one sandwich and coffee chain is looking to summer internships for teens to try to get ahead of the shortage.

"I would say that one in 50 people who apply to our company to work is British," Andrea Wareham, director of human resources at Pret a Manger, told the economic affairs committee of the House of Lords earlier this month.

"If I had to fill all our vacancies with British-only applicants, I could not fill them."

EU workers in the lurch

At the Georgian House Hotel, the immediate impact has been fewer EU applicants for job openings — and those who do apply aren't as proficient in English, or as dependable long term once hired — when there are so many jobs to choose from.

"It's already affecting us," says von der Heyde.

Hotel receptionist Gabi Cardos, 33, from Romania, supports a daughter and parents back home. She's unsure if she will have a job after Brexit. (Nahleh Ayed/CBC)

The inevitable approach of Brexit is, of course, also sowing panic among EU workers already here.

Hotel receptionist Gabi Cardos, 33, is unable to clearly imagine a future beyond the end of negotiations between Britain and the EU — exactly two years from now.

She left an eight-year-old daughter at home in Romania, in the care of her parents, to enable her to make a living decent enough for four.

Losing that job, which she worked up to from housekeeping, means possibly defaulting on debts, even losing her parents' home — and losing out on a rewarding career and a second family at the hotel.

Working in another EU country is not a real alternative without learning a new language, and possibly starting at the bottom again.

The Georgian House Hotel has relied on workers from the EU to fill positions. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

"We are concerned that we need to go home. For me personally this is not an option," she told CBC News.

"We are working here, we pay the taxes, we don't have benefits, so I don't know why they want us to go home?"

In the lead-up to Wednesday's triggering of Article 50 — the EU mechanism that begins the countdown to leaving — London Mayor Sadiq Khan travelled to Brussels this week to call for some way of keeping workers like Cadros in the U.K.

Prosperous London is powered by EU migrants and is particularly affected.

"It would be a perfect gesture of goodwill and proof that we still have a common interest as a Continent to provide a cast-iron guarantee of their rights to remain in the U.K.," he said.

Britain will eventually have to recognize it needs EU labour, says von der Heyde.

"But having been rather surly in our approach to it, we can't be surprised when they aren't knocking on our doors saying, 'We'd really love to come and work for you,' because we've made people feel unwelcome here."

Orchestra on the move

Loath to wait out that outcome, individuals and even some organizations potentially affected by the end of free movement to the UK are choosing to act.

The administrators of the European Union Baroque Orchestra have decided to abandon headquarters in the U.K., in favour of mainland Europe.

The European Union Baroque Orchestra has decided to move its headquarters from London to the Continent. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Their base has always been Britain. But home — and the source of their funding — is the EU.

Further, the borderless world of the EU is essential for a youthful group that is constantly on tour and includes multiple nationalities travelling with large instruments.

Among them this year are players from 13 different EU countries.

"All of our orchestra was born after the European Union was invented," says director Paul James, who founded the orchestra in 1985.

"They're really used to moving across borders every day. They don't even see them as borders. It's one big workplace and they can live wherever they want."

That big workplace is now effectively one country smaller.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.