Day 6

As 'Brexit refugees' pour in, Amsterdam is making the best of the U.K.'s mess

With time running out for an organized Brexit, Amsterdam has welcomed a wave of people and businesses fleeing the chaos of British politics for more stable shores.

The U.K. isn't ready for Brexit, but Amsterdam is

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England on April 3, 2019. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
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As the British Parliament remains in a deadlock this week over Brexit negotiations, at least one city is making the best of the uncertainty: Amsterdam.

Businesses and people have poured into the Dutch capital over worries about ongoing Brexit talks and the U.K.'s political climate.

While this week ended with talks between Prime Minister Theresa May and Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, no deal has been made — and despite a request to extend the U.K.'s withdrawal from the EU to June 30, Brexit day remains April 12, 2019.

Irish journalist Naomi O'Leary wrote about the influx of so-called Brexit refugees into Amsterdam for Politico. While politicians in the Netherlands would sooner prefer no Brexit, the U.K.'s mess has brought thousands of skilled workers, and major businesses, to the country.

O'Leary spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what the sudden increase in population means for the city.

This is part of that conversation.

Has the influx of the so-called Brexit refugees been a strain on Amsterdam or do they see it as a bonus?

Certainly, the official policy of the city government is to welcome these people. For example, the government did everything it could to try and attract the European Medicines Agency to relocate to Amsterdam.

That was one of the agencies that had to relocate out of London due to Brexit. They [the city] provided relocation services and everything to try and bring people there, so it's very much a policy to attract highly skilled people.

Having said that, of course, there's always effects on local people. One of those is that the housing market is very inflated at the moment. So, house prices are very high, and that hasn't been helped by net inward migration of 15,000 last year. And many of these people come with quite big salaries.

British Prime Minister Theresa May committed this week to working with Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to solidify a Brexit deal. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Amsterdam anticipated that there could be chaos attached to Brexit — perhaps even more so than the U.K. did and they've been preparing for this for some time now and in a number of ways including the introduction of the Brexit Muppet.

Who is the Brexit Muppet?

The Brexit Muppet is literally a huge blue fluffy character — a bit like a mascot that you might see for a sports team — that sits on the desk of people at work and physically obstructs the conveyor belts and stops business from happening. And the government launched this so-called Brexit Muppet as part of an information campaign to try and get companies to assess their vulnerabilities; the potential risks to their business from Brexit.

So, it was intended to be attention-grabbing and to get people to focus on the fact that Brexit could obstruct what they were doing in some way. Kind of a metaphor. So it was to try and encourage people to figure it out and to make contingency plans.

As cute as the Brexit Muppet is, there is real anxiety over the commodities — the flowers, fruits and vegetables — that, with the EU, have moved very easily and in huge volume from Amsterdam via Rotterdam and the North Sea to the U.K.

Does anyone know what will happen to the movement of all those goods and the industries attached to them if there is a hard Brexit coming?

It's a very serious question. The Netherlands is one of the most exposed countries in the EU to Brexit — the most exposed after Ireland — and some of the Dutch industries are very heavily reliant on trade with the U.K.

Currently, the system, particularly for things like fresh fruit and flowers, is that they are driven [by trucks] onto boats in the Netherlands ... and overnight brought to the U.K. They're already in supermarkets next morning.

Now, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, suddenly things like agricultural products will all have to be checked for sanitary reasons. The U.K. wouldn't be part of the single market anymore, so there would suddenly need to be vets checking animals and everything. So, this kind of seamless trade just would be impossible.

That means that some sectors in the Netherlands, which sell an awful lot of flowers and fruit and so on to the U.K. could suddenly see their business models disappear.

Nobody really knows what will happen but Rotterdam port has been hiring customs officials and veterinarians and so on to prepare for that eventuality. And the Dutch government's position is that everyone just has to prepare for the worst.

What do they fear the most there?

Essentially all of this business that's coming in is really nice, but it just won't make up for the overall damage to GDP that Brexit entails. There's a number of reasons why the Netherlands opposes Brexit. One is the damage that it will suffer to its economy, but another is the Dutch vision of Europe.

The Dutch and the U.K. would have been traditional allies around the negotiating table in the EU and the Dutch very much appreciated having Britain on its side to counterbalance against the powers of France and Germany.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, favours a softer Brexit than previously proposed by the government. (EPA-EFE)

[The Netherlands] sees Europe in a slightly different way and it would have a lot more in common with Britain seeing Europe as primarily an economic arrangement and not wanting Europe to become increasingly expensive, I suppose.

Also ... without the U.K., suddenly the Netherlands is physically on the periphery of Europe with the expansion eastwards; the sort of the centre of Europe has really shifted eastwards.

So, there's a number of reasons why the Dutch were very unhappy that Brexit was happening and all of this business ... it's a nice sweetener but it just doesn't make up for the U.K. leaving.

One of the Parliament's Brexit rapporteurs said that he would give all those companies back in a heartbeat if it would just stop Brexit from happening.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Naomi O'Leary, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.

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