A tsunami of uncertainty has engulfed Anna Woydyla, a Polish restaurant worker in London, since Britain voted to leave the European Union.
Would her two teenage children, who grew up in the United Kingdom, still qualify for loans to study at British universities? Would she and her husband, after 11 years of working here, have to sell the home they just bought? Leave their jobs? Leave their new country? Try to apply for citizenship?
The 41-year-old is among hundreds of thousands of European Union workers in Britain who are fearful and confused over what happens next as their adoptive country begins the long process of unwinding its many ties to continental Europe.
“If it were just me, I could even return to Poland,” a visibly tense Woydyla said as she stocked a bar in an Italian restaurant in London’s Camden district. “But my kids are more English than Polish. They don’t even want to go to Poland for their holidays anymore. They even speak to each other in English.”
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An entire class of cosmopolitan entrepreneurs, workers, students and strivers who have made the UK their home since Britain opened its borders to its EU neighbors now see their futures in limbo. The immigrants changed the face of Britain, turning London’s Kensington neighborhood into a suburb of Paris, changing sleepy English towns like Boston into Baltic enclaves, filling supermarket shelves across the nation with Polish lager and Wiejska sausage.
“I personally cannot tell what’s going to change for me,” said Andrea Cordaro, a 21-year-old Italian student who compared the shock of hearing the referendum’s result to the punch-in-the-gut feeling of flunking an exam. “I’ll just have to keep my head up and hope for the best.”
Laurence Borel, a 36-year-old digital marketing consultant from France, isn’t waiting to find out what’s coming next. She asked for her British passport in May after more than 15 years living in the country.
“I’ll bet a lot of people are applying,” she said, explaining that she’d been mulling the idea of a passport for years but the referendum prompted her to act.
“I don’t want to go back to France,” she said. “My life is here.”
At workplaces and schools across the country, managers have sent out emails to worried foreign staffers and students, assuring them that, for now, nothing has changed.
“The formal process for leaving the European Union will take at least two years,” Oxford University said in one such statement. “Our staff and students can be assured that in the short term, we anticipate no disruption to employment or study.”
Over the long term though, the lives of the estimated 3 million EU citizens living in Britain may change in ways big and small. A survey commissioned by the Financial Times found that if Britain’s current immigration rules were applied to EU nationals, the overwhelming majority would lose their jobs and be forced to leave the country, catastrophic news for Spanish barristas, Romanian strawberry pickers, German investment bankers and the industries that rely on them.
The biggest impact may be on the Poles, the largest group of foreign EU workers in the UK. An estimated 850,000 people from Poland are now in the UK, seeking wages and opportunities far beyond what they could ever expect in their ex-communist homeland, a flow so dramatic that Polish is now England’s second-most-spoken language.
The fate of the Poles in Britain is such an important domestic issue in Poland that President Andrzej Duda vowed after the British referendum that Polish leaders will “do everything to keep the rights unchanged” in upcoming negotiations with British leaders.
“I trust that the British government will appreciate the contribution the Poles are bringing into the development of the British Islands, into their social and cultural life,” Duda said.
Under British law, EU immigrants who have resided in the UK for more than five years can apply for permanent residency. In practice, however, few EU citizens have bothered as their passports already allow them to travel freely and easily access education, health care, pensions and other services in Britain.
The Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, has estimated that still leaves up to 400,000 Poles who arrived in Britain after 2012. Though the path forward is still unclear, it’s possible that they, along with hundreds of thousands more from elsewhere in Europe, may have to apply for work visas and, if rejected, have to leave the country.
Aware of the EU workers’ anxiety, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had backed the failed “remain” side, issued a special message Friday to the nearly one million European citizens living in London alone.
“As a city, we are grateful for the enormous contribution you make, and that will not change as a result of this referendum,” he said. “You are very welcome here.”
To be sure, not all European workers in Britain are panicking or fearful.
“I feel good. Leaving the EU is a good idea,” said Gabriel Ionut, a 24-year-old from Bucharest, Romania, who works as a traffic marshal at a construction site in London. He has worked in the UK for four years and, with a residency permit, is confident about his chances of staying.
He says he fully understands native British concerns that their island has been forced to absorb too many immigrants in recent years, with too little control over who can come in due to the EU rules ensuring the free movement of people and labor.
“Now they will have more control over allowing in only the really good people,” he said. “And they will also be able stop more refugees from the Middle East. I am afraid there could be terrorists with them.”
Another Romanian construction worker said he was mostly confused. Iosif Achim, a 32-year-old from Satu Mare, Romania, has been in Britain for six years but never bothered to apply for a residency permit.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” said Achim. “But in my opinion this is going to be bad.”
The concern was mirrored across the Channel by the estimated 1.2 million U.K. citizens living in Europe.
The referendum “shouldn’t affect me too much, but it could,” said Herman Martin, a British composer who has lived in Brussels for the past 24 years. Overall, he said, the British vote to leave the EU would be a disaster for both parties.
“I find it quite disturbing,” he said.
Everyone with foreign ties appears shaken.
“We’re all in shock and deeply saddened,” said Christine Ullmann, a German who works in digital marketing in London, including on the “Hug a Brit” campaign that pleaded with the British to remain in the EU. Ullmann said she cried on the train Friday morning.
Borel, the French consultant, agreed that emotions were still raw.
“I love London. I love the English. I’m heartbroken,” she said.