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A Year After Vote, Brexit Supporters In A British Town Wonder If It'll Ever Happen

The George Hotel, a 17th century stagecoach inn, is one of the few historic buildings on Crawley's main street. Most of the town was built after World War II to house people displaced by bombing in London. In recent years, immigrants settled in Crawley and work at Gatwick Airport nearby.
Lauren Frayer

Stepping off the train in Crawley, 30 miles south of London, you hear less English and more Romanian, Estonian, Portuguese and Polish.

Crawley is an affordable place to live, if less scenic than some other English towns. Other than a medieval church and old stagecoach inn, most of Crawley was built after World War II, to house people displaced by bombing in London. More recently, many immigrants have settled here and work at Gatwick Airport nearby.

Brexit has many of them worried. It's still unclear how many people from the European Union will be allowed to stay.

More than a dozen foreigners NPR approached in the town center were scared to speak on tape. In the days after the Brexit vote, there were attacks on immigrants elsewhere in the U.K. But one couple, immigrants from Portugal, spoke up.

"I heard some stories about Manchester, [where] they treat the immigrants badly," says Lino Silva, strolling with his family near Crawley's town green. "But here? I think there are more immigrants here than English people!"

Silva says foreigners are the backbone of Crawley's economy, though it's unclear exactly how many European citizens live here because of the EU's free movement of people.

Census rolls show most of the roughly 100,000 people registered as living in Crawley are white and British-born. But a stroll around town, hearing foreign accents and talking to residents, reveals a more diverse picture.

"At my work, there's only one English guy. The rest are all Polish, Portuguese — even Chinese," says Silva's wife Veronica, who works at the Gatwick.

Silva says immigrants like himself and his wife came to Crawley for "a better life, better things" — and to do jobs like his own that he says native-born Britons don't want to do. He works a night shift at the airport.

Coming out of Church of England services at the town's St. John the Baptist Church, some parishioners — even those who support Brexit — say they're worried Crawley will face labor shortages if EU citizens are forced to leave.

"I think a lot of English people are lazy! They're not prepared to get up and do these jobs," says Christine Salt, who voted Remain. "Look at the little local shops — the hours they work are incredible. You wouldn't get an English person doing that."

She's talking about the Polish and Baltic shops that line Crawley's main street. Their British-born neighbors voted to leave the EU. But a year on, some here are having doubts.

"I think people are beginning to think that maybe they made a mistake," Salt says. "Because nobody seems to know what they're doing. That's the worst thing."

Some polls show if the Brexit referendum were held again now, it wouldn't pass.

But a retired Crawley postal worker on his way out of church says he stands by his Leave vote.

"Because I'm sick of the European Union! They're bureaucratic," says Gerald Riles, 81. "They tell us what to do in the minutiae of our lives."

A year after he happily cast his vote for Britain to leave the EU, he's frustrated that he's still in it. He now doubts Brexit will ever go through.

"What I call the liberal elite — the equivalent of the Clintons in the States — they couldn't care less about the will of the people," Riles says. "They'll do their best to stop us leaving the EU."

British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the official start to Brexit back in March. But after losing their majority in last month's election, government ministers are arguing over what form Brexit should take.

"I thought, you know, that it was going to be good! But it's been dragging on for so long," says lifelong Crawley resident Shirley Borette.

"We both voted Brexit, and personally, I'm not happy with the way it's gone," says her husband John.

His prediction for the next year?

"More of the same, basically! Waffle, prevarication and dithering," he says. "That's what [politicians] seem good at."

People in Crawley are in for a long wait. Britain is not slated to leave the EU until March 2019 — at the earliest.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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