PETERBOROUGH, England — Seen from London, Edinburgh, Oxford or other havens of the cosmopolitan British elite, this country’s vote next month on whether to quit the European Union may appear to be a relatively easy choice.
But venture just 45 minutes north of London by train to the ancient market city of Peterborough and it soon becomes clear why, with just over a month to go before the referendum, the polls are running nearly even.
Here, the initials E.U. are spat rather than spoken, Brussels is a dirty word, and all the prophecies of doom seem a small risk compared with the opportunity to unshackle Britain from Europe.
For in Peterborough — by at least one measure the least E.U.-friendly city in Britain — Europe doesn’t mean the world’s most prosperous and peaceful continent. It means a mass influx of Eastern European immigrants across open borders that residents say has transformed this city beyond all measure.
“This used to be the posh part of Peterborough. Look at it now,” David Jackson, a 41-year-old teacher, said as he ruefully surveyed the scene on Lincoln Road, the commercial heart of the city’s multiethnic immigrant communities. “Romanians pissing in the park. Lithuanians out on the street drinking, doing drugs. Even the rats here are on heroin.”
If Britain does vote to leave the E.U. on June 23, analysts say, a powerfully emotional backlash against decades of immigration in cities such as Peterborough will be the primary driver.
“Immigration is by far the best issue for the ‘Leave’ campaign,” Freddie Sayers, editor in chief of the polling firm YouGov, wrote in a recent analysis. “If the coming referendum were only a decision on immigration, the Leave campaign would win by a landslide.”
Although the E.U. itself ranks near the bottom of surveys measuring the issues that matter to Britons, immigration — levels of which have been at historic highs — often tops the list. Advocates for a British exit have hammered the point, arguing that getting out of the E.U. is the only way for the country to control its borders, because the 28-member club guarantees its citizens freedom of movement.
The anti-E.U. campaign’s emphasis on metaphorically walling off the British isles and, in some cases, demonizing immigrants as criminals, addicts or welfare cheats has generated comparisons to the xenophobia and nativism of another political movement that is shaking the Western political establishment this year.
“The Leave campaign is really the Trump campaign with better hair,” William Hague, a pro-E.U. former British foreign secretary, wrote last week, describing a “transatlantic mirror-image” of resentment toward foreigners and protest against the political class.
America’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee has endorsed Brexit, as the British departure from the E.U. is popularly known. That’s in sharp contrast with the stand of virtually every major world leader, except Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the Leave campaign has not welcomed Donald Trump’s support, and it bristles at any parallel.
To Stewart Jackson, Peterborough’s ardently anti-E.U. representative in Parliament, Trump is nothing more than a “media-
driven buffoon” who has built his campaign on prejudice and bigotry. The push for Brexit, by contrast, is in his eyes a rational rejection of a supernational union that limits British control over its own laws, “something that no American would accept.”
“We have an old-fashioned view that the best people to run Britain are the British,” Jackson said. “That shouldn’t be a radical concept.”
Still, Jackson acknowledged that when it comes to immigration, there are similarities in the fervency of the backlash in Britain and the United States.
The foreign-born population in both countries is about 13 percent. But immigration has grown significantly faster in the United Kingdom, with the number of foreign-born residents more than doubling over the past two decades. Last year, net migration to Britain — the difference between inflows and outflows — hit a record high at 336,000. Of those, 180,000 were E.U. citizens, who can move to Britain simply by hopping aboard a plane or a train. Unlike in countries across continental
Europe, refugees made up only a relatively small portion of the inflow in Britain.
Peterborough — a modest agricultural city set on the exceptionally fertile plains of eastern England — has been a particular magnet for Eastern Europeans, who have come by the tens of thousands to work the surrounding fields of asparagus, potatoes and beets, or to take relatively low-paid service jobs in the city center.
Those immigrants have helped make Peterborough one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain — with an unemployment rate lower than the national average — and they describe it as a land of opportunity.
“I love this country, and I love this city,” said Simona Budvyte, a 27-year-old Lithuanian who moved to Peterborough nearly five years ago, along with her newborn. “My daughter goes to school here. She’s learning English better than me.”
Budvyte spoke as she busily swept the sidewalk in front of the Lithuanian restaurant where she works as a waitress, along a stretch of Lincoln Road that includes Baltic convenience stores, Indian curry houses and Portugese tapas joints. She said the diverse population blends well in Peterborough, and that the restaurant attracts a clientele from all over. “Everyone likes Lithuanian food,” she said proudly.
But not everyone in Peterborough likes the changes that have come to their city as a result of the immigrant influx.
“You can’t just keep taking people,” said Chris Brooks, a 62-year-old art dealer and resolute supporter of the Leave campaign. “There’s definitely some bitterness out here.”
He criticized the new arrivals for “not doing anything” and for “coming here and working for less than the average English person wants.”
Jackson, the member of Parliament, said his constituents aren’t naturally prejudiced toward foreigners. But he said they have been poorly served by governments that cheer the overall economic benefits of immigration without accounting for the downside: Hospitals and schools are strained, waiting lists for public housing grow longer, and workers — particularly those with low skills — are squeezed out of the labor market.
“People in London get their skinny organic lattes served to them by an immigrant at a cafe, and they don’t see the impact that uncontrolled immigration has on people in low-skill work,” he said. “We’re creating a subculture of people who are alienated from society. And that fuels anger and resentment.”
The resentment is especially acute in Peterborough. It’s one of the largest cities in Britain without a university, meaning that young people have to go elsewhere to finish their schooling. That’s helped to make the city fertile ground for “out,” with support for Brexit highest among less-educated voters.
“We’re 40 miles from Cambridge, but we might as well be 40,000,” said Joseph Wells, the 24-year-old local coordinator for the campaign to keep Britain inside the E.U.
Wells acknowledged that finding enthusiastic supporters for his cause has been a struggle. Until recently, his volunteer cadre numbered in the single digits.
Pro-Brexit campaigners, by contrast, say they expect little trouble motivating their troops to hit the streets over the coming month.
“We’re going to paint this town red and white,” said prominent local Brexit backer Lisa Duffy, referring to the colors of the “Vote Leave” signs that have sprung up amid the yellow fields of rapeseed that ring Peterborough.
For Duffy and her partner, Peter Reeve, the referendum is the culmination of more than a decade of campaigning for a British exit. But Reeve said he’s nervous that immigration alone won’t be enough to persuade a majority of Britons to back his cause.
Voters, he said, want to know what Britain will look like outside the E.U., and that’s a question that no one can definitively answer. The “in” camp, for instance, argues that promises of dramatically reduced E.U. immigration following Brexit are a fantasy, because the union will demand Britain accept free movement as a condition of continued access to Europe’s common market.
But at least with Brexit, Reeve tells his wavering neighbors, the country will control its destiny.
“We’d have a voice again,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to be as open and tolerant or as closed as we want to be.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.