Brexit: Wealthy Europeans call in the movers as no-deal split looms

The timing suggests a reaction not so much to Brexit itself but the handling of negotiations, said Mr Anthony Ward Thomas, founder of a firm of the same name that specialises in overseas relocation.
The timing suggests a reaction not so much to Brexit itself but the handling of negotiations, said Mr Anthony Ward Thomas, founder of a firm of the same name that specialises in overseas relocation.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • With the Brexit deadline less than 75 days away, the increasing likelihood of a no-deal split is pushing wealthy Europeans who have made their homes in Britain to call it a day and get the movers in.

Mr Anthony Ward Thomas, founder of a firm of the same name that specialises in overseas relocation, dealt with 296 moves away from Britain last year, an 82 per cent rise. Favoured destinations include Paris, Brussels, Zurich and Geneva, as well as southern France and Spanish locations like Majorca.

The timing suggests a reaction not so much to Brexit itself, but the handling of negotiations, Mr Ward Thomas said. Customers are typically wealthy, having at least £5 million (S$8.7 million) at their disposal, and mostly European Union citizens moving with their families, including retirees seeking warmer weather but also favouring more stable political systems.

"I wouldn't say it is because of Brexit with a capital 'b', but the fact that we find ourselves in such a mess," he said in a phone interview. "People are leaving the ship because the ship itself is foundering."

The exodus may accelerate after the rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. With no end to the saga in sight, people "who have been sitting on their hands" may now be moved to make some life-changing decisions, he said.

Popular destinations also include United Kingdom crown dependencies in the Channel Islands, which do not apply capital gains or inheritance tax. Relocation inquiries increased by more than 50 per cent in the second half of last year compared with the first six months, according to Ms Jo Stoddart, director of Locate Guernsey.

Italy has also emerged as a magnet for moves, spurred by Brexit and the introduction of a new tax regime two years ago, said Mr Francesco Tesi, senior associate adviser of Lionard Luxury Real Estate. The country was previously a focus mainly for second-home owners. "Now, it is a hedge-fund manager or an entrepreneur," he said.

 
 
 

Mr Ward Thomas has not yet seen an uptick in corporate relocations. Though with many companies saying a non-negotiated exit would be disastrous for their UK operations, he said some are laying the groundwork for moves.

A continued flight of EU nationals would bring a boost for the industry after three years of lacklustre growth, which the British Association of Removers said has been a consequence of people awaiting the outcome of Brexit. To be sure, the most recent official figures, for the quarter to June, still show a net inflow of migrants to Britain from the EU, though the gap has shrunk to the narrowest in six years.

Brexit has also been blamed for a downturn in London property values, though that could dissuade some home owners from leaving, as people who put their houses on the market face the lowest chances of securing a sale in 10 years.

Mr Ward Thomas, though, said continuing uncertainty around Brexit could further boost demand by increasing the chances of the Labour Party coming to power, with its pledges to redistribute wealth. The "prospect of a (Jeremy) Corbyn government", he said, is fuelling "a desire to realise the value of assets in the UK and move to a new tax domain".

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Wealthy Europeans call in the movers as no-deal split looms'. Print Edition | Subscribe