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Marta di Bernardo, a 28-year-old modern languages student in Genoa, thought she had her life mapped out for the next year or so. She had planned to leave for Scotland soon after graduating in December, where she hoped to find a job and maybe pursue another degree. 

Ms di Bernardo is now following every twist in the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on EU membership this week and “praying” that Brexit will not come to pass. “I’m quite upset. If Great Britain decides to leave at the end of the month it would be a huge obstacle for me,” she says.

Italy is watching the June 23 referendum anxiously, because of fears that a vote for Brexit could deliver a fresh setback to financial markets and damage European integration. Many ambitious young Italians have a further concern — the UK has in recent years become their chosen escape hatch when fleeing an ailing job market at home. Italy’s unemployment rate is 11.7 per cent and youth joblessness stands at 36.9 per cent, according to the latest data, which relates to April. 

Italy’s government has also shown concern about its citizens’ access to the UK. During EU negotiations this year, Rome generally indulged Britain’s demands on the terms of its membership — but always maintained that freedom of movement could not be curtailed.

If the UK exits the EU, the country’s Leave campaign has announced plans for an Australian-style points system to vet immigrants based on their skills. For those who make it to the UK, social benefits would be more restricted. Moreover, should forecasts by the UK Treasury pan out, Brexit would deliver a blow to the country’s economy, potentially leaving fewer jobs to go round. 

“Of course the United Kingdom won’t become a third-world country, but Brexit would understandably concern the younger generation [of Italians],” says Alberto Majocchi, a professor of finance at the University of Pavia.

Should the UK leave, it remains uncertain what new curbs on work permits, residency permits and benefits would then be put in place — and when they would come into effect. Any new measures would probably not affect the estimated 600,000 Italians already in the UK and may not come into force for at least two years.

But Pasquale Terracciano, Italy’s ambassador to Britain, says Italians who are already in the UK fear being plunged into a “bureaucratic tunnel”, in which they will be repeatedly asked to renew their work permits and prove their qualifications. Italians aspiring to migrate to the UK fear “they will find themselves in front of a wall, like that which exists in the US, to get a visa”, he adds.

Brexit could have a silver lining for Italy if it reduces its “brain drain” — but that will depend on the strength of its economic recovery. Italy returned to growth last year after a triple-dip recession, but the government in April downgraded growth forecasts for this year from 1.6 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

If growth remains sluggish, immigration flows might shift to other countries. “If obtaining a visa to go to the UK becomes too difficult, it might be worth learning German to work in Germany. Immigrants are flexible,” says Alfonso Giordano, a professor of political geography at Luiss University in Rome.

Mr Terracciano adds that, if a Brexit deals a big blow to the UK’s economy, there might be fewer Italians keen to migrate there in any case.

Alessandro Vulcano, a 26-year-old aspiring photographer in Genoa who wants to move to London, says Brexit could lead him to go to the other side of the world. “If the UK becomes as restrictive as Australia, I’d opt directly for Australia or New Zealand,” he says.

The EU’s popularity is on the decline in several member countries, according to a survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre released this month. Almost 40 per cent of Italians have an unfavourable few of the bloc, according to the survey.

For Ms di Bernardo, however, migrating to the UK feels like the only option. “I like it there and I am sure I would be able to find a job related to what I studied,” she says “All you can get in Italy is a job as a cashier, even if you speak five languages.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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