Francesco and Andreas are both Italian nationals who are studying and working in the UK.
Francesco's story begins with a broken leg in Italy. This led him to say 'enough is enough'. He started looking for academic opportunities and chose the UK on the basis that he could speak much better English than any other language, save for his native Italian. He enrolled for a post graduate course, discovered a love of research and so that snowballed into a PhD in the South of England. He now works as a post-doctoral researcher.
Andreas read law in Italy. He came to London and to Exeter during his undergraduate studies. 'Why the UK?', I asked.
'Partly because of UK universities have a good reputation', he said, 'but also because of the more stable situation here, there are more opportunities, I don't have to pay international fees and I can just get on a Ryanair flight home if I want to. I liked the idea of Germany but my German is not very good. My ex-boyfriend is French so I didn't consider France!'
Both describe difficulties finding good quality opportunities for progression in Italy. Rents are high. Good quality jobs are scarce. Many young people are trapped living with parents. Andreas said:
'Being free is really important to me - in my research as much as in my personal life. In Italy there is unfair competition on the academic jobs market whereas in the UK if you contribute, you get named [on papers as an author].'
On benefits, Francesco and Andreas say that they find much of current rhetoric 'offensive'.
'I understand that maybe some people come to the UK for benefits but his [David Cameron's] perception of the scale of the problem is wrong. No single Italian I know is claiming benefits. I am specialising in EU law and I didn't even know that I could rely on British GPs for example. I thought it would be so difficult that it would not be worth bothering.'
Developing the healthcare theme, Francesco added:
'I’ve only had one experience with a GP in the UK and it’s wasn’t that great. So I sort everything medical out at home. My Mum books my blood tests in Italy and I bring six months of pills back with me.
'I don’t want to be perceived as a burden, clogging up the health system. The country is giving me an opportunity so I repay them by behaving well.'
'Maybe some people come for benefits but certain procedures have to be navigated. You can’t get benefits overnight. Most people don’t know how it is possible to access benefits. Ultimately you want to pursue happiness in life. I have known a few people who have claimed benefits and most of them have ended up going home. Better to be in that situation at home in the sunshine than here.'
'If I thought I would be unemployed I would rather go back to Italy to refocus my application instead of staying here and claiming benefits. Even though my whole life is here in the UK benefits are for people who have no alternative.’
'I don’t see jobs in Italy as belonging to Italian people. The jobs are there for whoever is skilled to take them. If Italians aren’t getting jobs then we need to look at the root causes of that. Maybe we need more regulation not of migration but of the labour market. I think we take too much for granted that our focus should be on money rather than on wellbeing. Nature never maximises efficiency because efficiency is too fragile and brittle. Trees don’t have one root they have lots. Resillience comes from diversity.’
On Brexit, Andreas suggests that a UK vote to leave might be 'an opportunity for the rest of the EU to pursue a more homogenous and ambitious project.’ We close our discussions with a rhetorical question: what would benefits rules look like if we designed them for inclusion, integration and wellbeing?