Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
There are many contenders, but no clear winner.
“Dear start-ups: Keep calm and move to Berlin.” So reads a truck billboard being driven around London this week, paid for by Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP). A cheeky attempt to capitalize on London’s post-Brexit malaise, the campaign itself is something of a joke—the center-right FDP is a political non-entity in Germany’s capital, where it barely scrapes 1.8 percent of the vote. The message is nonetheless a sign of the wind’s direction.
Across the E.U., cities are lining up to woo companies considering leaving London after June 23rd’s referendum vote to leave the union. It’s worth noting that London’s role as Europe’s finance and business capital may not really be coming to an end. It’s true that some banks started plotting a London exodus within days of the Leave vote. But the U.K.’s future relationship with the other 27 E.U. member states is far from fixed. If London secures “passport” rights that would allow the city to serve as a base for trade routes, it may well continue as the location of many European headquarters, albeit with battered prestige. Still, this week, Paris announced measures to make the city more attractive to international business, while many other towns are making loud, positive noises aimed at attracting the attention of the international business community.
If trade barriers do rise between Britain and the rest of the continent, we may well see a significant redrawing of Europe’s business map.
Assuming London businesses do indeed start to pack their bags, the list of destinations they might head to is pretty long. The survey of possible contenders below isn’t even comprehensive; Berlin, Vienna, and Luxembourg have also been mentioned in the rush to grab a share of potential London finance émigrés. While Frankfurt, Paris, and Dublin are obvious frontrunners, no one city is a clear shoe-in to take over London’s role. Every possible candidate has drawbacks. It’s not easy to find a city that has a business-friendly regulatory environment, a skilled workforce with excellent English (now the business lingua franca across Europe), an already existing cluster of finance businesses, and an environment that wealthy workers would actively choose to live in.
A more complex exodus to several different destinations thus seems likely, rather than a pendulum swing shifting business from London to a single new hub. Below are some of the more likely candidates to grab at least a small slice, if not the whole pie.
The capital of Northern Italy may never truly rival London as a business center, but it’s already trying to position itself as the “financial capital of Southern Europe,” according to the Italian business media. It has some clear advantages. The center of a prosperous, well-connected region, it’s the kind of city that wealthy finance workers might actually choose to live in. Even if it isn’t Italy’s most beautiful city, it still has excellent opera, grand housing, and alpine skiing right on the doorstep. In international finance terms, however, it’s still a minnow and will be held back by Italy’s reputation of corruption and inertia, as well as lower levels of English competency.
Spain’s capital is “the gateway to the Latin American and African market”—or so said its regional premiere Cristina Cifuentes in a bid for post-Brexit business this week. Madrid has some plus points: It’s a charming, if underrated, city with Europe’s best links to the Spanish-speaking world, and English competency is generally higher in Spain than in Italy. Local commentators have still evocatively described the region’s push for post-Brexit business as “pure smoke,” hampered by the city’s low status as a finance hub. A city government concerned with eradicating inequality might scare off the odd plutocrat, too.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Poland’s largest city out of hand. Warsaw is the capital of the largest economy in central Europe and can draw on a highly qualified workforce with often-excellent English. Its finance sector is still relatively small, however, while Poland’s current government has promised to end the country’s free market approach. Though the city has some charm and beauty, Warsaw is still ever so slightly bleak and internationally isolated overall, which might deter the upper echelons of the business world. Warsaw’s relatively low wages and costs of living could still place it well to gain some extra post-Brexit business nonetheless.
For London companies seeking to remain within the single market without moving to a non-English speaking country, Dublin seems like an obvious choice. Indeed, the city has been preparing for such a windfall for a while. Although somewhat more regulated than London, Dublin has a reputation for having a friendly tax regime for multinationals, as well as a well-educated workforce. Dublin’s size could provide some possible barriers, however. In a city of less than a million, housing can be hard to find. Given how the Irish authorities have already struggled with the glut of British citizens filing applications for Irish passports, any volume of major companies relocating to Ireland could create an administrative logjam.
France’s capital is so hungry for London’s business that it started “rolling out the red carpet” to London finance weeks ago, even before the referendum result came through. The Paris region just upped the ante once more by directly mailing 4,000 British-based executives an invitation to relocate. The city’s advantages are clear. It is already a major banking center with excellent international links, and despite fairly low quality of life ratings, it remains a beautiful city that rich people clamor to live in. France still has a reputation among business advocates as a regulatory nightmare, however, while other European cities offer an environment more accessible to English speakers.
There are already Dutch media rumblings of London companies moving to Amsterdam. With a favorable tax environment, a high quality of life, and flawless English almost standard, it’s an obvious relocation spot for businesses wanting to avoid any future tariff barriers. The city is even trying to make things easy for U.K. citizens already living there: it has opened a “Brexit One Stop Shop” to advise Amsterdam’s 14,000 U.K. passport-holders. Dutch banks seem less optimistic than the country’s media, however. The Head of the Netherlands Banking Association cited relatively lower salaries as a possible barrier in Dutch business magazine Een Vandaag Economie:
“For many companies, we are an excellent gateway to Europe for many countries, but a great center for investment banking Amsterdam is not. The Netherlands has a more restrained salary policy for banks and insurers than other countries and companies will take that into consideration.”
Continental Europe’s largest financial center was always going to be an obvious beneficiary of Brexit—British media have been warning us about it for months. The city already expects 10,000 more banking jobs to arrive in the next five years, and those workers can expect shorter commutes and lower living costs—albeit with relatively lower salaries. The city is likely to do well (perhaps better than any other) by a business shift across the channel to the European mainland. Frankfurt’s fitness as a banking hub still can’t mask an inconvenient truth: The 700,000-resident city may have sparkling skyscrapers and great wine country nearby, but it’s still a bit of a dump—a provincial city that could struggle to attract employees used to big-city pleasures.