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UK Finns brace for Brexit: “I feel a bit sad for the kids”

As Britain’s politicians squabble over how to leave the European Union, some 20,000 Finns in the country are wondering how—and whether—to stay.

Britannian ja EU:n liput parlamenttitalon edessä.
UK and EU flags at the Houses of Parliament. Image: Andy Rain / EPA

Britain’s decision to leave the EU is causing upheaval for people across the UK, especially the roughly three million EU citizens currently living there.

Roughly 20,000 of them are Finnish, and they are dealing with a different atmosphere to the one many of them initially experienced when they relocated.

“It has been interesting to follow on social media when some people seem to be your friends and they are saying things about European nationals,” says Janita Maaranen, an entrepreneur in the northern city of Sheffield. “You have known them many years, and then they say things about European nationals, when actually I am one of the European nationals: is this what you really think about me as well?”

Maaranen has three main strands to her livelihood. She’s a running coach, she operates a language services company and she bakes and sells Finnish specialities like rye bread, Karelian pies and cinnamon buns.

The baking business, run under the ‘Cafe Nort’ banner, has gained both Finnish and British customers, and Maaranen has thought about opening a cafe. All her income streams are under pressure, however, as the threat of a ‘no-deal Brexit’--in which Britain would crash out of the EU without an agreement—looms ever larger.

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Janita Maaranen
Janita Maaranen Image: Janita Maaranen

Maaranen craves certainty above all, even if that means a hard Brexit and bigger trading barriers.

“It would be easier to have an outcome! Then you can deal with it, you can plan. The more delays there are, the more uncertainty. That’s terrible for a business.”

Leena Inkinen-Lee moved to Sheffield from Lahti in the mid-1970s, and has raised her family in the steel city. She also weaves traditional Finnish rugs on her loom, and even once sold one of them to the Swedish film star Ingrid Bergman.

When she first arrived the steel industry was a a big, dirty presence in the east of the city and Inkinen-Lee found the smog and dirt a little tough. Now she says she loves the city and cannot imagine leaving—but was still shocked at the 2016 referendum result.

“I don’t really know anybody who is a leave voter,” says Inkinen-Lee. “All my friends are for remain. Neighbours are remain, English, Spanish, German, all for remain. I’ll show you how strongly I felt: For the first time ever I had something in my window.”

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Leena Inkinen-Lee didn't have a vote in the 2016 referendum, but she displayed a campaign poster in her window.
Leena Inkinen-Lee didn't have a vote in the 2016 referendum, but she displayed a campaign poster in her window.

Neveen Mansour is a much more recent arrival. She came to Sheffield in October 2016 on a three-year neuroscience studentship and works at the Centre for Cognition in Small Brains at the University of Sheffield. When the June 2016 referendum took place she was living in Oulu, but still took the plunge and moved to the UK.

“I was a bit concerned but I contacted my professor and he said to just come anyway,” said Mansour, who adds she thought it ‘unlikely’ that the UK would throw her out halfway through her PhD.

Two and a half years later, she has no regrets and enjoys living in the city.

“When I came here and I saw the Peak District, I thought this was going to be a nice city, and it’s also quite a green city,” said Mansour. “People are really nice, you might be walking in the morning and people smile at you and say good morning to you and I enjoy that. You don’t have that in Finland.”

Like Maaranen and Inkinen-Lee, Mansour spends much of her time in the affluent west of the city, the prosperous wedge that runs from the city centre to the Peak District national park. She has met and mixed with older leave voters, however, and says they didn’t share her worries about what will happen when Britain leaves.

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Neveen Mansour moved to Sheffield in 2016.
Neveen Mansour moved to Sheffield in 2016.

“Sometimes when you have to talk to them about what will really happen when Britain leaves, I feel like there’s not a common way of understanding,” says Mansour.

That divide between the well-heeled south-west and poorer north-east is a crucial part of Sheffield’s Brexit story. The city voted narrowly to leave the EU, by 52 percent to 48, mirroring the national result.

Professor Charles Pattie of the University of Sheffield says that the result was driven by anger as much as anything else.

“One of the things that really annoys me about the way the referendum has been covered is the knee-jerk assumption that people who voted leave are stupid,” says Pattie. “They weren’t. They were angry, and they had a reason to be angry. They’d been let down for years by government and here they had a chance to say well let’s kick back against that. So they kicked back. What did we expect? That anger is the thing, and it’s got real causes.”

Sheffield’s economy collapsed nearly as quickly as that of Greece after 2008, but national political debate in that period mostly focused on economic success. That disconnect was key to the 2016 referendum, according to Pattie, and it’s a divide that’s also played out within cities like Sheffield.

“We’ve seen a lot of libraries closed in Sheffield, a lot of libraries still open but run by volunteers,” says Pattie. “Money is getting tighter every year, there are concerns about the council being able to provide social services. It’s not just the council, it’s also the welfare system and the health system and there’s growing anxiety about that. There’s anxiety about the extent to which things that were previously seen as core and essential, like libraries, suddenly aren’t.”

Unsettled status

Jonna Nylander-Hallott moved to the north-east of Sheffield in 2015 and now works as a designer at a packaging firm. Her current home is in Chapeltown, a suburb on the outskirts of the city that has been hit hard by the decline of traditional industries, but she doesn’t recognise the picture of horrendous poverty despite deep cuts in public spending.

“I think this whole country has always been a bit divided,” says Nylander-Hallott. “It’s like, you have the Tories and Labour, rich versus poor, the working class versus the more white collar workers. I don’t know if it’s anything new.”

“I took [Brexit] a bit personally at first, but now I just feel a bit sad. It’s not necessarily me, it’s the next generation. Like my husband’s students, they won’t have the chances to go abroad, like I did in the Erasmus exchange. They won’t have those easy ways to go abroad and I just feel a bit sad for the kids.”

"Huge concerns remain"

Wherever they live in the city, Sheffield’s Finns are now pondering their next moves. The UK Home Office says that EU citizens must register for ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled’ status via an Android app. Last week the government waived a planned £65 fee for the process but those affected remain critical of the system. It provides nothing like the sense of certainty Finland's government has offered Brits in Finland, for instance.

“They have removed one of the lesser hurdles and waived the £65 fee - but huge concerns remain,” said Maike Bohn of the3million, a campaign group advocating for the rights of EU citizens in the UK. “EU citizens are being forced to apply for rights that they thought they already had - with potentially disastrous consequences for those people who, through no fault of their own, fail to get the new status.”

Bohn raises questions about the reliability of Home Office checks, data protection issues around personal data that authorities can pass on to third parties, and basic functionality around the Android-only app.

The Labour MP for Sheffield Central, Paul Blomfield, who is also a Shadow Minister for Exiting the EU, said by email that he has listened to EU citizens’ concerns.

“Finland is one of over 120 countries from which people have come to Sheffield and Finns who have made their home here or come to study at one of our universities have enriched our city enormously. As a Shadow Minister for Brexit with responsibility for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU, I am acutely aware of the concern many EU nationals are feeling about their futures.”

Yle asked Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to comment on his government’s performance on citizens’ rights.

Janita Maaranen says the information required for her case is quite extensive as she looks to safeguard her two children's rights.

“Who can go back to 2001?” says Janita Maaranen, who moved to the UK 17 years ago. “You didn’t think that you needed anything. I had the same mobile number since 2001, and I have been a member of the gym, so we are using those when we apply.”

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Almond and cinammon buns made by Cafe Nort in Sheffield.
Almond and cinammon buns made by Cafe Nort in Sheffield.

Leena Inkinen-Lee says she’s waiting to see how things pan out.

“I’ll wait until the curtain comes down properly,” says the mother of three. “I have to apply for the settled status I suppose. We won’t all be put into a big pit, hopefully!”

Mansour, a neuroscientist with most of her career ahead of her, says she’d like to stay in Sheffield.

“It feels weird when some people here have started to apply for citizenship. The atmosphere is very uncertain, some people are doing things even though everybody is saying that things are going to be fine but at the same time you see a different environment around you. Things are happening and changing, but you don’t know about them.”

“People in my office, students, say it’s not a nice place to be. It’s not nice to not know what’s going to happen. If the situation in the UK gets really bad, or gets worse, then I would think about leaving. I would say that if Brexit takes place, people from abroad, even the highly educated academic people, will leave the UK. And I would say that’s a huge loss.”

The most recent arrival interviewed for this story, Mansour has followed the debate closely. Aged 25, her views align with those of Britons of the same age: she’d like to see Britain remain in the EU and she thinks there should be a second referendum on Brexit.

“People change their minds, and I would say that now, when there has been a lot of news about what will happen after Brexit, what will happen if Britain really leaves, and I feel like people have woken up to that,” says Mansour.

Maaranen says she enjoys her life in Sheffield, citing the diverse cultural life of the city and the friendly, small-town feel, but adds that she wouldn’t mind moving to Finland either.

“My family would move to Finland at any moment, if I said there’s an opportunity to move to Finland next month, they would be happy,” says the part-time baker. “It’s not so straightforward though, you have to make sure we have a means of supporting ourselves.”

It may be that Sheffield risks losing its unique Finnish bakery--and much more besides--before it really understands what’s happening.

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