In the downstairs cafe at Betahaus, a former soap factory in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district that now houses co-working spaces for tech industry freelancers, the air is thick with snippets of English laced with a range of European accents, from hissed German via lisped Castilian to clipped estuary English.
But native British cadences could soon become a less familiar sound in European start-up hubs. After the first week of EU and UK officials negotiating the rights of citizens after Brexit, it has emerged that UK citizens living in the European Union could lose their rights to live and work in another EU country.
In a tech industry in which many young workers city-hop on a weekly basis, British entrepreneurs like Jonathan Sykes could after March 2019 find themselves burdened with visa applications while their former co-workers move freely across borders.
Sykes, 34, has set up two companies, a design agency and an app that helps you organise bike races and marathons, since moving to Berlin two and a half years ago. His team is made up of French, German, Portuguese and Romanian colleagues, and he frequently works for weeks at a time with a development team in Thessaloniki, Greece.
“In our industry, being ‘locked in’ to one state could potentially be disastrous,” Sykes said. “As a start-up you never know where you are going to have to go next in search of new markets.”
At Betahaus, the Brexit story has almost come full circle. In November 2014 former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg paid a visit to the co-working space, as part of a diplomatic mission designed to enlist German politicians to David Cameron’s plan to restrict the rights of European citizens in the UK.
But three years and the small matter of a lost referendum later, it is now the Brits at Betahaus who are most worried about losing their rights.
Oliver Spragg, 27, last October quit his job at a London start-up he had co-founded, and started cycling east. He eventually wound up in Berlin because he hurt his knee along the way, but isn’t planning to stay for long. Lisbon and Dublin are the next potential stops on his itinerary.
“I am massively benefiting from the freedom to move around the EU at the moment – I wouldn’t have done what I did if I had to get a visa each time.”
His desk neighbour Jack Mitchell, 26, is more set on staying in Berlin. Working remotely from Berlin for a UK-based company dealing in personal data, he is still concerned that his position in the jobs market could change.
“At the moment London universities churn out talent like an assembly line, and many tech companies love the idea of recruiting marquee signings from the UK,” he said. “That would certainly change under the proposals being debated. The question is whether the talent will stay in the UK and find work there, or whether another European city will emerge as the talent factory.”
Many of his fellow Brits in the start-up scene were looking at virtual residency programmes such as Estonian e-citizenship or eIDAS to ease their businesses through the next few years.
“It’s still really hard to make plans at the moment – it’s all still based on conjecture. It would seem silly to make a decision to leave Berlin now. In that very British way, you just carry on with things,” Mitchell said.
Lobby groups representing Brits in the EU advise a more proactive approach. “Especially after today’s shenanigans in the news, many Brits are coming around to the view that they ought to apply for German citizenship,” says Ingrid Taylor, a Munich-based teacher and translator who is updating the Berlin branch of British in Germany via Skype.
“That’s what we are recommending: if Brits are eligible to apply for citizenship, they ought to be looking at it seriously.”
Berlin-based lawyer Jane Golding has been lobbying both the British and the EU side and in May put her pressure group’s case directly to Michel Barnier’s negotiating team, who at first seemed to take their concerns on board.
While “definition of the rights to be protected” in the draft negotiating document made no mention of freedom of movement, the corresponding paragraph in the final negotiating paper, paragraph 21 (b) (i) specifically referred to “the residence rights and rights of free movement”.
“So now I am asking myself what exactly that wording means if it is suggested that citizens won’t have right of free movement,” said Golding.
But she emphasised that was approaching the negotiations not just with the interest of Brits in Europe at heart, but also those of European citizens in the UK.
“The problem with the ‘settled status’ that the British side is proposing is that you can of course lose it if you leave the country for a consecutive period of two years. That only works in the context of free movement. You can have people being abroad on a work placement or a university degree for a couple of years, and then they wouldn’t be able to start all over again because they would have lost their automatic right to get back to the UK.”