An interview with Viriato Vilas-Boas, an Algarvian living in London, shows his longing for home and Faro beach, the delights of the big city despite the weather and the nasty effects that Brexit is having on foreigners living in the UK - he wants to stay in the UK, but the scene is growing ugly, even in multi-cultural London...
When did you leave the Algarve?
I left the Algarve around April 2014.
What was the London School of Economics like to study at?
Studying at the LSE was definitely an interesting experience.
In all honestly, I am now more aware of the weight the institution carries than when I first got accepted. I was also offered a place at King’s College (London), but after consulting with my Undergrad lecturers and some people close to me I was advised to follow the LSE route.
Unfortunately, my Mother passed away in the first months of my MSc. This, in turn, meant that I did not experience LSE in a ‘normal’ manner. Between the mourning process, caring for my family, and attempting to submit assignments in a timely manner, the whole year felt like a bit of a blur.
But, on a more positive note, I was glad to be accepted into such a multicultural environment, where I had contact with a plurality of people. Since I was the only Portuguese person in my class, I certainly felt like this was a good opportunity to grow and develop myself, academically, intellectually and socially. I was fortunate enough to find great people from countries which I would not normally have contact with (e.g. Norway, Japan, Pakistan, etc).
The degree I graduated from was that of Comparative Politics, which, in a very summarised manner means contrasting countries, regions (etc) in order to find answers to socio-political puzzles.
Because of my frustration with Portugal’s absence from case studies and literature in general, I made a point of trying to include it into the course, even if I had to come up with a paper myself. Hence, my dissertation was: ‘Why was the Party System Realigned in Greece and not in Portugal after the 2008 Financial Crisis?’.
In a nutshell, I found that Greece has a more established ‘populist political culture’, stemming back to the 80’s, while Portugal has maintained a mostly stable ‘classic politics’ approach. Also, in a more secondary level, Greece’s complex voting system (too complex to explain in just a few words) was more conductive to the aforementioned development of a populist political culture than Portugal.
Where are you living now?
I am currently living in a shared accommodation on a neighbourhood between the Highgate tube station and Muswell Hill (N10).
Have you had difficulty in earning a living in pre-Brexit Britain?
Considering that I have been studying full-time for the past consecutive four years (BA followed by MSc), my experiences with the employment landscape have been mostly in a post-Brexit environment. Therefore, I do not have a vast amount of personal knowledge in that area.
What is clear though, is that the amount of companies closing-down, relocating, downsizing or going into administration (eg. Maplin, Patisserie Valerie, Tesco, Jaguar Land Rover, Dyson, etc) has increased consistently in the wake of Brexit. This, in turn, is likely to affect employment in one way or another. Add the fluctuation of the British Pound to that equation and you start to see a problematic picture, for unemployment and the economy overall.
With regards to my own personal experience, I have been actively looking for employment ever since graduating in December 2018. I have been interviewed for disparate industries and companies thus far, and beyond the regular questions that go with an overview of CV and relevant skills, there is one that always comes up: ‘Will you be able to work here, visa-free, after the Brexit deadline?’.
There is no right or wrong answer to that question, for no one knows what type of Brexit is going to happen, if it happens at all… So, I try to answer in a way that does not ‘close the door’ on my employment opportunity, but that is also as truthful as possible; Moreover, the answer has to be delivered in apolitically, since in the UK one has to be careful around who, and in what conditions, the ‘B word’ can be uttered.
I tend to reply with reference to the Windsor Treaty, signed in 1386, that connects the two countries’ politically ever since. Such is delivered as means to reassure prospective employers that Portugal and England have been allies before the European Union was even a thought, and such condition may bode favourably towards Portuguese citizens in a Post-Brexit reality. But personally, I do not think that the historical fact has any real impact in appeasing employers’ fears.
I genuinely believe that employers will only hire EU citizens if they really have to, or if it’s an exceptionally brilliant candidate. Since the uncertainty of employing someone who they might have to be responsible for (at a visa-sponsorship level) turns European citizens into possible liabilities in the long run. If you add that logic to an employment culture that is already predisposed to discriminate even when it comes to its own minority Nationals*, you can imagine how impacted EU citizens will be.
What is cool about the UK?
In a nutshell, the cultural environment.
I feel like Portugal, especially a region like the Algarve, is still light-years away from fully comprehending how important a push for nurturing culture is. For example, the fact that you have world-class museums in London, where you can enter without having to pay a single penny, is demonstrative of the priorities of British society overall. The simple fact that families, regardless of income, can chose to just go ‘hang-out’ at a science, art, or history museum, is conductive to the building of healthy intellectual and cultural habits.
Another thing that I love about the UK is the pride the country has in preserving its architectural lines. From small villages to big metropolitan areas, visitors or inhabitants have a feeling of walking through a living painting or a Mary Poppins movie. I believe this to be the exact opposite attitude one sees in certain parts of Portugal. Faro’s old cinema (in Rua de Santo Antònio) is a perfect example of this: There, you had a beautiful example of a classic landmark of architectural wonder, which was tore down only to be replaced with a so-called ‘modern’ building. Such was the success of the refurbishment that the new building is presently abandoned and vandalised.
Moreover, to know that I am walking the same streets as some of my childhood/teen heroes, such as Joe Strummer or Jimi Hendrix, gives me great satisfaction and inspiration. Also, reading the small English Heritage plaques on buildings fuels my imagination about the days of old – did you know Marquês de Pombal had place just off Piccadilly Circus? Additionally, I studied nearby where T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, or George Orwell used to work or live. This is bound to makes one’s head spin with dreams of glory, poetry and genius; almost as if talent and greatness could be acquired second-hand by literally walking in their steps somehow (If only it were that easy!).
Under the umbrella of culture, one definitely has to mention the theatre, film and food scenes, which never fail to surprise and inspire.
Also, the human fabric that makes up London is also a plus for sure. A true tapestry of people, cultures, languages, hopes and aspirations that come together to enrich this blanket of human experiences. Without such a disparate plurality of minds and lives London would be a shadow of its current self.
*It should be noticed that, my view is one that is very London-centric, for that is the reality I know better.
What is not good about the UK?
Indubitably, the thing I dislike the most about the UK is the weather. The cold, grey and wet features of the British climate definitely take a stab at the heart of any Algarvian native for sure.
Also, since Brexit I have come to resent the hostile environment towards minorities, myself included. To bear the label of immigrant, Muslim, person of colour, etc, has become almost like carrying a bullseye on your forehead, with the added stress of not knowing who is carrying darts under their coats. This, in turn, tends to feed into a state of mind where one cannot relax, because you never know when the next blow is coming, where is it coming from, and in what form.
It can be something as simple as someone cutting you in a cue, to hearing a group mumbling under their breaths about ‘dirty foreigners’, the dirty looks if you are speaking another language in public, the barista pretending not to understand if you ask for a glass of water because your accent is not British enough, or the more blatant ‘go back to your country’ shout to ones face. Needless to say, these attitudes come from English, white, sometimes (but not always) older people. Such behaviours only get worse the more you leave the ‘London bubble’ and venture into small towns. I personally, after Brexit, have tended to avoid leaving London much.
Furthermore, the rise in knife crimes, and acid attacks (often connected to the aforementioned tensions of race, nationality or creed) can take a toll on one’s sense of security and ease. There was a time I felt safer in London, to be honest.
Moreover, the exorbitant cost of living, rising inflation and disproportionate landlord rights contribute to some pretty precarious living arrangements for some people. Sometimes resulting in homelessness in most dramatic cases.
I dare you to walk for more than an hour without finding homeless people. Whether you’re in Hampstead or Southbank you are bound to find rough sleepers.
What do you miss about the Algarve and have you any plans to return in the short or medium term?
Number one on the list of things I miss the most about the Algarve is my family. London is a lonely place as it is, and this feeling is bound to be amplified if you leave your family behind. I am blessed though, to have my girlfriend here with me, whose existence makes the greyest of days feel warm and bright.
Number two on the list would have to be the sea. I mean, the Thames is alright but it cannot compete with the sandy shores of ‘my’ Faro beach.
Number three is definitely the food, especially coffee. London has a wonderful gastronomic landscape to offer, but for good food you have to pay exorbitant prices; and no matter how much you pay, you cannot find a good espresso anywhere!
In the Algarve food is always fresh, if you avoid certain overly-touristy places, and the coffee is always good and cheap no matter where you go.
In the medium-to-long term I do aspire to move back home, but that would require the region to be developed enough to the point of generating good opportunities, conductive of a comfortable life in the Algarve. And this means looking beyond the tourism industry and broadening entrepreneurial horizons. Another way that I see this happening is if I am employed by a company that requires a lot of travel and yet allows me to have my base in the Algarve.
Have you visited on holiday/family visit and has your attitude and outlook changed?
I try to visit as much as possible, for I miss my home beyond what words can describe. I try to go back two to three times a year (Christmas, Easter, Summer).
My attitude and outlook have certainly changed. I usually say that the curse of the immigrant is that he or she will never feel fully at home anywhere they go. When I go back home there are things about the UK that I miss deeply, such as the museums and the cultural stimuli that London provides nonstop. But then again when I am in London I miss the slow, more earthly lifestyle that is an inherent part of my upbringing. I miss fishing, I miss chilling in the Livingroom with my parents, I miss going to the skatepark with my friends, etc.
My experiences in the UK also affected me in how I conduct myself in society. I didn’t give much thought to issues of race or class when I was living in Portugal, but in the UK if feel such factors take centre stage. As such I have become more aware of how I conduct myself in certain situations, but also how I educate those around me to notice certain vicious cycles or injustices ingrained in the cultural customs of the land, but which tend to have harmful consequences.
One of the examples would be the panic about Islam or Muslims in general, in a place where you rarely interact with a Muslim to begin with. Once, a couple years ago, I had a conversation with a guy who was worried that Islam was invading Europe; When I enquired him as to what ‘Islam’ is, he told me that it was a country in the Middle East. This is an extreme example, but it is true, and serves as an anecdote for a bigger picture.
There are about 400.000 Muslims in Portugal*, hardly enough to stir any form of panic in a rational way. And yet I have to engage in unnecessary debates, about an issue that only exists in Portugal in the form of misleading social media posts and dubious international news sources.
But my attitude has also been more acute to other issues of class and race that in my previous years in Portugal would have been invisible to me.
Brexit – what’s the mood among your British and European friends?
In all fairness, I do not have many British friends. I have had many acquaintances though, and they pretty much agree with the fact that the whole thing is madness. I spoke to people who either vote for Tories, Labour, or do not vote at all, and the general feeling is that Brexit does not simply make sense. Also, most Britons I meet feel apologetic from the get-go, with shame being the most ubiquitous feeling associated with it. I cannot tell you how many British people I spoke to who cringe when the elephant in the room is mentioned, only to go on a string of apologies ‘on the behalf of Britons’.
On the European side of things, (and Arab, and Asian, and American…) the consensus is pretty much the same. This is madness. Brexit has certainly left a stain in how the British are perceived, especially the English.
The thing is that us, EU citizens, used to feel like it was our right to be here. As much as it was any Briton’s right to bathe in the waters of the Algarve, or live under its sun, for example. But now, it feels more like the UK is doing us a favour in allowing us here, as if we were this parasitic burden that is being tolerated for the moment.
Such a thing is bound to cut you down to size, in your pride and your sense of safety.
I mean, if you look at the far-right marches, the assaults, the blatant racism that was triggered after the referendum… Unless you have blonde hair, are white, have a thick British accent, you can be a target.
Has the government been at all clear as to how you, as a Portuguese national, will be treated after 29th March?
The government has not been clear on anything. And considering the sea of uncertainty through which this administration is travelling, even if they did attempt to appear serious with regards to how I will be treated, I wouldn’t believe it.
Strategically speaking, May’s government has no interest in making any assurances set on stone with regards to the fate of EU nationals, Portuguese or not. I feel that, at best, I am a bargaining chip. Bargaining chips have some value, and you tend to use them to get as much as possible from your negotiations. And, for as long as European citizens can be used to threaten the EU, our future’s uncertainty will remain on the table.
It is utterly despicable that you need to put human beings at the end of a carrot stick and threaten to either put them down gently or throw them under a bus, but that is the political reality that any government will be faced when trying to pull the Brexit stunt.
Have attitudes changed towards ‘foreigners’ in the last two ‘lead up to Brexit’ years?
Just do a basic google search with the words ‘Brexit Racism’ and you’ll see news reports and studies linking the increase in the latter as a result of the former.
It is not a tough sell to claim that the increase in hate crimes based on race, religion or nationality have been related to the Brexit phenomenon. Once you have figures like Nigel Farage or Tommy Robinson being normalised as campaigners and champions of the ‘common people’, you automatically have a problem. This is because you are normalising them by placing them on the same level as other political players such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. Regardless of what I think of those two and their respective politics, they are still politicians doing politics, rather than setting the people and the streets on fire with dog whistle slogans and imagery.
I was already saying this even before the vote actually took place: the ‘Leave campaign already won, even if it loses the vote’. As much as Le Pen won in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the US, and now Bolsonaro in Brazil.
The real problem of Brexit was its ruthless campaigning plagued with inconsistencies, misinformation, and blatant lies from both sides. We now know that ‘Vote Leave’ broke the law, and that there was international interference in the referendum. You also see how little the actual result of the referendum mattered since those in charge of the original project have all but jumped ship (Cameron, Farage, Boris, etc).
The reality behind the Brexit referendum is that it was not a consultation of the people’s will as to whether or not remain in the EU. It was a PR campaign that served to legitimise racism and xenophobia nationwide. Before Brexit it was taboo to tell someone to go back to their country, to attack Muslim women on the streets, to wear swastikas in public, etc.
Today, in Britain, to be a racist or a socialist is equally valid; to be a conservative or a Nazi is on the same level; to be a Liberal or a White Supremacist are simply political choices.
Beyond the actual technical difficulties of politically disengaging the UK from the EU, the real challenge lies in putting the ghost of blatant racism back in the box.
You wrote in a 'What can Theresa May learn from Malcom X': “Contemporarily, the amount of literature documenting the negative economic consequences of Britain leaving the European Bloc, added with the already disastrous social impact on the general public (especially minorities), is beyond any rational debate or challenge.”
As rational debate has been close to impossible due to the ‘Catch22’ Brexit situation, how do feel that events will play out, politically and socially?
To be very honest… I don’t know. And my guess is as valid as any.
But I can attempt to bring forth 3 scenarios.
- Considering that the European Court of Justice ruled that Brexit can be unilaterally reversed, that option remains on the table. Simply call the whole thing off and pretend the last two years did not happen. Adding the fact that the referendum was never legally binding, it is not ‘technically’ an antidemocratic move. Such move can be aided by gambling on a second referendum, now being dubbed as the ‘People’s Vote’.
Problem: (1) No one wants to deal with the hot potato of ‘going against the people’s will’.
(2) Far-Right supporters of Brexit may become militant.
(3) Theresa May has held on to power for the sake of power ever since Cameron left the scene. If Brexit is reversed, that would probably be her last act as a Prime Minister, and as a career politician overall. Theresa May has campaigned against Brexit, tried to advocate/implement it, and is failing gloriously at it. If she makes another U-turn, she as an individual, will lose any shred of credibility left in her.
- Negotiate a Brexit in which the UK remains locked with European markets in a pay-to-play manner, open to EU immigration, while losing its seat at the European Parliament’s table.
Problem: (1) The UK’s star on the EU flag disappears, but other than that very little changes, and access to European markets becomes more expensive.
(2) It is not the withdrawal that ‘the people’ were promised. Everything stays the same practically, and the UK loses influence internationally. This means that countries like the US will be looking towards Germany or France for influence in European soil; Leaving the UK ever more isolated in the global stage.
- Completely sever ties with the EU, deport the European citizens who are not wealthy enough to make an impactful contribution to the country (e.g. those who do not earn enough to ‘buy’ their place via hefty tax payments or other contributions, and resort to the NHS and any other benefits), and venture economically into the World Trade Organisation’s rules. Also, build a big physical barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and turn the island into a tax haven.
Problem: (1) The EU is antagonised in the process and, regardless of repercussions, severs ties with the UK. The UK’s main economic sector (services) suffers, since overnight banks and other giant income generators relocate, because they are no longer European Headquarters, they are simply British headquarters (Their business-operating area shifts from an entire continent to an island).
(2) If the UK tries to turn itself into a tax haven in order to retain and attract businesses, it passes the bill onto the working- and middle-classes. Considering that such a scenario would accelerate privatisations, reduce tax revenue, and deregulate the workplace, low wages and job insecurity would become a very plausible reality.
(3) Northern Ireland, being the holder of a precarious peace, rekindles its conflicts. Considering that sectarian violence is augmented and fuelled by social insecurity, an economic blow to the region (no matter how small) can reignite past vices (e.g. recent Londonderry explosion).
With regards to the social aspects, I touched on that quite extensively in the former question. I would say the legitimisation of racism or xenophobia is going to take years, if not decades to reverse.
Looking at ‘Why The (News) Media is Just Like a Pair of Jeans’ and taking into account the algarvedailynews reputation for criticism of the government, elites, local government, avaricious property developers and all things that are just plain stupid, do you think that the news media in Portugal is highly controlled by government and business, or it is free to follow its own path?
I commend any outlet or individual who is daring enough to speak up for what they believe. I am the son of an ‘April Captain’, and so I cherish deeply the space in working democracies that exists for a media critical of their governments and elites; the so-called Fourth Estate.
The algarvedailynews not being an exception to what I believe to be an integral function of the media: to inform. I believe criticism to be a by-product of the obligation of informing one’s readership, rather than a means in and of itself.
What I do feel to be uniquely special about the algarvedailynews is its power to reach a section of the population, in Portugal, that may sometimes be disenfranchised from the Portuguese mainstream media, for either language or cultural barriers. This news outlet can reach out to people who are a part of the English-speaking Portuguese community; which as I see it, has been a valued constituency of the country. And that in itself is a wonderful mission.
With regards to my thoughts of the Portuguese media… I genuinely think we could be worse off. We do have commercially driven outlets in either print, online or TV formats, but I don’t fault it beyond the fallouts of sensationalism and political inclinations.
Portugal is ranked 14th (out of 180) in the World Press Freedom Index*, just one place ahead of Germany and one before Iceland. It is not a perfect score, per se, but is far from concerning. In my article I addressed just that. In the sense that it is okay to chase the money, as long as you don’t compromise the basic principles of truth and human decency.
If you were to look at the most popular tabloid in Portugal (Correio da Manhã), you are bound to find a lot of sensationalist headlines and human-interest stories but nothing overtly inflammatory or harmful towards society at large.
Contrastingly, if you look at how the UK fares in the WPFI, it is 26 places behind Portugal, in 40th place. The UK is located just one place ahead of Burkina Faso, and one before Trinidad and Tobago! You can take your own conclusions form that...
Moreover, in 2015 the UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, actually made an open appeal to the British tabloid media to tone down their hateful and inflammatory speech towards foreigners.**
There is nothing that baffles me more, every time I am on a plane flying back home, than seeing someone reading The Sun or the Daily Mail, with their fear-mongering anti-immigration Headlines. The irony of a person actually moving (even if only seasonally) from their home country to a foreign country while digesting rhetoric geared against that very same practice, is beyond any logical explanation. I believe that may be the reason as to why some people resort to the creative verbal device for distinguishing between ‘Expats’ and ‘Immigrants’; as if they were not mere synonyms.
In a nutshell, the Portuguese media is not perfect, but thankfully, it is still a far from being ‘a British media’. And I do place the work done by the algarvedailynews under the umbrella of the ‘Portuguese Media’.
As journalism is international and you are a polyglot, will you be staying in the UK post March 29th or moving to another European country?
For the time being I will be staying in the UK. Because I have worked hard to make a home for myself here, and also because I would like to make a meaningful contribution to the place where I earned both my BA and MSc. As a matter of principle, if not for anything else.
Furthermore, I do not believe in running from anything, but rather running towards something!
I have had my fair share of racist encounters here, but I also love all the other things that this place has to offer, the culture, the multicultural atmosphere, the fast-paced environment, etc…
Also, if I do have to leave, I’ll do it when I know what is going on around me. Because, to be honest, aside from the social and economic consequences that I mentioned before, nothing has changed with regards to my legal right to live and work in the UK.