Italians in the UK: ‘After all these years, we feel unwanted’

Italian expats in the UK shared feelings of anger, fear and confusion after Britain voted to leave the EU. And they never even got a say.

Italians in the UK: 'After all these years, we feel unwanted'
Thousands of young Italians have moved to London in recent years. Photo: TJ Morris

The UK has drawn Italian immigrants for decades.

In the last few years alone, thousands of young Italians have moved there for work, managing to carve out successful careers, while contributing massively to the British economy.

The Italian consulate estimates that 600,000 Italians are now living in England and Wales.

But many members of the country’s Italian community were shocked to wake up on Friday to learn that their host nation elected to leave the EU.

Alessandra Castelli, from Milan, moved to London over 13 years ago, shortly after obtaining a law degree.

During that time, she has mastered English fluently, married a British man and had two children – all the while rapidly rising to the position of editor for a London-based financial newswire that employs thousands globally.

“I was absolutely shocked by the result, I really didn’t think it would come to this,” she told The Local.

“My husband is British, my two children are British. After 13 and a half years here, today is the first day I feel like an outsider.”

The Italian embassy in London, where the vast majority of Italians have settled, moved to assure them on Friday, saying that Britain’s decision to leave the EU would not change their situation for the next two years at least.

“Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said that the Italian government will be watchful of the respect of the rights acquired by Italian citizens in the immediate future and in the future negotiations for the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union,” the embassy said in a statement.

But with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who backed ‘Remain’, stepping down on Friday morning, those words have done little to alleviate concerns.

“I’ve been speaking to others from within the EU – Germans, Spanish….we all feel the same. These are all highly-skilled people,” Castelli, added.

“What is going to happen next? Will there be the same opportunities for others who come?”

Castelli said she would now apply for British citizenship, which requires taking an English language test because she obtained her degree at a foreign university.

Meanwhile, experts in Italy have said that Brexit would hit the thousands of young Italians who have their sights set on the UK, with many possibly opting to go elsewhere.

“Fees for Italian students at UK universities will more than double, and stricter border controls will see many young Italians heading to different countries to find work,” Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor and president of Rome’s John Cabot University, told The Local.

Such a scenario would undoubtedly be a big loss for the UK too, which over the last few decades has built a vibrant, multicultural society, largely off the back of hard-working immigrants.

“I built my career in the UK, the country has given me so much,” Castelli said.

“But I’ve also paid so much in tax, and have made a career here. Now I feel unwanted.”

Cecilia Bressan, 27, an architect from Turin, moved to London three years ago.

“I’m feeling quite scared. I consider London my home, but I don’t feel so welcome anymore, ” she said.

“Most of the people didn’t seem to realise the implications of this decision and voted without thinking too much or being informed.

“You’re not breaking a friendship, you’re breaking an important deal. And now we need to face the consequences.”

Like Castelli, Bressan said the UK has helped her carve out a career as an architect, but now fears there will be a freeze on new projects as the construction sector is usually the first to be hit in an economic downturn.

“Everyone is extremely worried,” she said.

“But it’s hard to think ahead yet, as a) we don’t know what’s going to happen, and b) if you think about it too much you just panic.” 

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Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Italy's government is leading a revolt against an EU plan for a green car transition, vowing to protect the automotive industry in a country still strongly attached to the combustion engine - despite the impact of climate change.

Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government took the fight to planned ‘Euro 7’ standards on pollutants, joining with seven other EU member states – including France and Poland – to demand Brussels scrap limits due to come into force in July 2025.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

“Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared,” claimed Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent proponent of national industry in the face of what he has called an “ideological vision” of climate change.

The EU plan “is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view”, added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it “madness” that would “destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers” while he claimed it would benefit China, a leader in producing electric vehicles.

Electric car being charged

Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that “environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place”, blaming a “strong industrial lobby in Italy” in the automobile and energy sectors.

“None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as climate champion. And it’s clear that with Meloni’s government, the situation has deteriorated,” he said.

Low demand

Jobs are a big factor. In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

READ ALSO: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

“Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines,” noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

For consumers too, the electric revolution has yet to arrive.

Italy has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe: ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Electric cars charge at a hub in central Milan on March 23, 2023. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, “we are extremely behind”.

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country the fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

“There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy,” Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP.

“The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat.”

In addition, “purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries.”

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees.

“We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model,” he said.