Meet the Europeans in Britain’s Brexit heartland

European migrants are supporting the social fabric of places such as Thurrock and keeping Britain’s creaking public services on life support.

The article was first published by the Guardian on 9 May 2016.

“Any place has limits,” says Joanna, a trainee nurse. “Immigration has an impact on healthcare and education. My child’s school is packed, and it made me feel sorry for the children.”

In Thurrock, Essex, where Elizabeth I bawled defiance against the approaching Spanish armada and where the Daily Mail is printed today, this kind of talk is not unusual. This is ground zero for Ukip – a constituency that swung dramatically towards the party in both European parliamentary elections in 2014 and in the general election last year. The surprising thing about Joanna is that she is not a classic Ukip supporter: she was born in Poland, and only came to Britain in 2008.

Such are the nuances of the EU referendum debate. Thurrock may tend towards a Brexit vote (Ukip gained another six councillors in local elections on Thursday), but it’s also home to many Europeans who are admired by other locals. Conversations here tease out the awkward tension between a prevailing exasperation with the European Union and an understanding that people living here who come from elsewhere in the EU do make a difference.

Take Jean-Michel Wendorff. He is one of two partners in the Dell medical centre in Grays. His is a story of European reconciliation. He has a French mother and a German father (“My grandparents fought against each other in the war”) and he met his Polish wife-to-be as a schoolboy by taking part in the very first school exchange between east and west in the cold war. After studying in different continents and a three-year period travelling around Asia together, they decided to settle in the UK. They took British citizenship two years ago and have taught their two sons four languages: Polish, German, French and English.

Wendorff jokes that most people won’t take the risk of insulting their doctor while they are being treated, but adds that there is little hostility towards him, “rather, an open discussion”. He says he has had interesting exchanges with some of his older patients about the second world war. What does he think would happen to the NHS if staff from other EU member states were to leave?

“[The NHS] is already near collapse, if 5-10% of its workforce would leave, it would collapse. It’s struggling already, left and right, and does not have enough people on the ground.” He is not exaggerating: there are almost 30,000 doctors practising in the UK who come from another EU country, and another 37,000 non-British Europeans work for the NHS in other roles.

European migrants are supporting the social fabric of places such as Thurrock and keeping Britain’s creaking public services on life support. Look at Marta Woldarska, another Polish migrant, who has lived in Britain since 2004. She has worked as a cleaner, a shopkeeper and a full-time mum, but now feels she has discovered a vocation, as a care worker for elderly people. She washes them, dresses them, cooks, cleans, makes cups of tea. Most importantly for them, she talks and listens.

European migrants are supporting the social fabric of places such as Thurrock and keeping Britain’s creaking public services on life support.

“They love telling me about their lives, the places they visited, what they did when they were younger, family, health, operations,” she says. She speaks movingly about the relationships she has built. “For the first time since I came to this country, I feel part of a community. I feel that I am helping them, they really appreciate what I am doing. I don’t feel like I am an outsider. I am needed.”

Of course, it’s not always easy. Some of the people don’t like her accent. One woman hit her and called her “a bloody German”. But more importantly, she says she gets a great deal of love from older people and their families, and this is what has finally made her feel like she belongs.

Thurrock has always been emblematic of England’s island story and its connections to the rest of the world, experiencing the dislocations that this brings but also the benefits. It was here that the Empire Windrush docked in 1948, bringing the first major wave of West Indian migrants. But whereas in the past these migrants soon resettled in inner London, now immigrants who have been priced out of the capital are making lives in these formerly white, working-class suburbs.

Pat Headon, who is 91, first came to Thurrock in 1950, and has seen the community change since the postwar era when life revolved around the local cement works. Over the years, she says, she has been able to befriend people from Denmark, Italy and Spain. But in recent years she has seen a large influx of east Europeans to her housing estate. Indeed, the census in 2011 showed that Thurrock was becoming a giant hall of residence for thousands of Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian workers, many of whom commute to London.

For Headon these demographic changes are welcome. “I have nothing but good to say about the Poles. They seem to be excellent workers.” She is also excited about the way they have swelled the ranks in her local Catholic church, bringing life to its congregation and singing in the choir.

However, it is the way migration affects the social fabric that is allowing Ukip to make its inroads, because, unlike in inner London or other urban areas such as Birmingham, people here left behind by a changing economy see their own prospects slipping as workers from Europe become a more visible presence in their communities.

“I’m not racist, I’m just jealous,” says a burly man in his 50s in the World’s End pub in Tilbury. “I have a house in Spain, but I don’t claim benefits, use their health service or take their jobs.” His drinking companion, a mechanic with wavy hair and a cheeky smile, says: “Actually, I am racist.” He complains about Romanian and Polish families taking council houses and undercutting his car repair business.

And yet, ironically, many of these workers depend as much as the rest of the country on access to the European single market. For example, DP World, the Gulf logistics superpower, is investing in turning Thurrock into the largest deepwater port in the world, partly in order to serve European and global markets. And Proctor and Gamble’s enormous plant in Thurrock creates vast vats of soap for export to the rest of Europe. 

Pat Headon says local people have always been more accepting of professional immigrants, such as earlier waves of Indian and African doctors, than they have of manual labourers. But some Brits have been won over by good experiences with Thurrock’s new working-class residents.

Brian Cutmore is, by his own self-description, “a proper fucking Englishman”, with a cockney accent and tattoos on his fingers. He is the embodiment of an upwardly mobile working-class man, employed as a construction manager at one of the biggest housebuilders in Britain. One of his closest friends is a Polish builder who lives in Thurrock. “Andrzej is a really great guy,” he says, “and I don’t meet many in construction, which is a dog-eat-dog world. Because it is so transient, I tend not to want to make friends. In 45 years I have made maybe five or six.”

With Cutmore’s help, Andrzej Chromik has risen to become a logistics manager at a major construction company. He first came into the country on the back of a truck from Calais in 1999 – he paid people smugglers £200 and managed to sneak through on his fourth attempt (he was turned back twice by the French police and once by the British). After a rocky start – he got deported once for illegal working – he started working his way up the profession, becoming able to work legally when Poland joined the EU in 2004.

When he got married to his second wife, they decided to settle down somewhere with a village feel to have kids. They bought a house in South Ockenden, in Thurrock, and go to a Polish church in Rainham.

Cutmore and Chromik have come to respect each other a lot, and they speak about each other with an affection that belies their tough exteriors.

Goalkeepers rarely get the plaudits or make the headlines, but you’d soon realise if they were gone. Perhaps Lidakevicius is a neat metaphor for Europeans in Britain.

For Cutmore, a 59-year-old with 11 grandchildren, it took a while to appreciate people from different cultures. “My first experience of foreign people in construction was 20 years ago. And I didn’t really take to them. I’m not a very tolerant person,” he admits.

But since getting to know Chromik, he has become more curious about other ways of life. “The majority of these people come here just to make a better life for themselves … The English have got very lazy. People say they’re taking our jobs. But they’re not. They are taking the jobs that you can’t get off your arse to do.” His attitude towards politics has also changed: he used to be in favour of leaving the EU, but now he will definitely vote to stay.

European elites have always been connected – you only need to think about the royal family and their history of inter-marriage. And in recent years these human links have swelled because of the expansion of travel and study abroad. According to one study, there have been 1 million Erasmus babies since the beginning of the study exchange programme in 1987, and more than a quarter of all students who take part in the programme meet their long-term love while studying abroad.

With free movement, places such as Thurrock are also becoming connected to the rest of the world through ties of friendship and romance. Take Andy Vine, who fell in love with a Polish woman who came into the bank where he worked as clerk. Ella Vine, a three times junior chess champion in her native Poland, started working in this country as a care worker. In the Lakeside shopping centre, she speaks of her work with Innovate Essex to set up a lingerie business. Pointing at the stores, she says she hopes that the Ella Vine brand will one day be seen alongside Victoria’s Secret and M&S.

Vine says that she was desperately lonely before she met her Essex-raised husband, who now drives a van for Next. Is he a white-van man? “I think it’s grey,” she says. She now feels she belongs here too: “I first fell in love with the man, then the country.”

What distinguishes Vine – aside from her entrepreneurialism – is her political involvement. She twice stood as a Labour candidate in council elections in Thurrock and has set up a national charity to help Polish immigrants.
One of her fellow activists in the Thurrock Labour party is Rafal Zak, who works as a chef in a Thurrock care home. Zak has tried to improve the diet for the residents, but they have very traditional tastes, preferring fish and chips and roast beef and yorkshire pudding. In his spare time he is working with Labour’s London mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, to mobilise Polish voters in the elections this year.

“Polish citizens can help win the ‘Battle of London’ for [the] Labour party,” he wrote in a recent article for the Fabian Society “Like they helped this country win the Battle of Britain in 1940.”

The last person I speak to in Thurrock is Lukas Lidakevicius, a goalkeeper who played for Lithuania’s under-21 national team and now plies his trade for East Thurrock in the Ryman Premier Division. Lidakevicius moved to the UK in 2009 at the age of 16 to sign on as a youth player for Barnsley.

“When I was a kid I watched the Premier League playing on the telly,” he recounts. “I really wanted a professional contract. Football is a game, it’s not about politics. If you’re doing a good job, no one cares where you are from.”

Goalkeepers rarely get the plaudits or make the headlines, but you’d soon realise if they were gone. Perhaps Lidakevicius is a neat metaphor for Europeans in Britain.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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