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Switzerland

How Brexit Could Be A Boon For Switzerland

In Geneva and other Swiss cities, people are cautiously optimistic that Britain's EU-exit vote could spur investment, boost real estate and maybe even help local universities.

Businessmen by Lake Zurich
Businessmen by Lake Zurich
Servan Peca

LAUSANNE — The financial centers in France, Germany and Luxembourg wasted no time after the Brexit results went public promoting themselves as possible landing points for banks and finance firms fleeing the City of London.

People have also begun to contemplate possible Brexit benefits here in Switzerland. But while opportunities do exist, there are plenty more assumptions, at this stage, than certainties.

1. Multinationals

There are an estimated 7,300 British people working in Geneva, particularly at the multinational end of the lake, and plenty of concern now about job security in the wake of the EU withdrawal. "We've gotten a lot of calls from this population worried about the consequences of Brexit," says Pierre Jéronimo, a property and relocation specialist with the real estate firm GR Mobility.

At the same time, there is speculation that the Brexit could open up new job opportunities with companies that may want to relocate here from London. "U.S. multinational corporations in particular are thinking about a back-up plan. Most of them, for language and cultural reasons, chose to install their European headquarters in the UK or Ireland," says Jéronimo.

The June 23 vote is indeed a blow for London. The audit firm Deloitte estimates that the British capital hosts 40% of the European headquarters of the world's 250 largest companies. London has 40,000 digital sector companies alone, with another 10,000 expected (prior to the vote) by 2025, according to Ernst & Young. All of that could now change, with some predicting an exodus that could reduce the London computer sector, the most important in Europe, to a trickle.

2. Banks

People are wondering if Geneva's financial sector could similarly benefit from the Brexit by attracting banks like J.P. Morgan, which made it clear before the the vote that it would relocate part of its workforce should the referendum pass.

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The National bank of Switzerland in Bern — Photo: Blankenstijn Andrea/GFDL

Working against Switzerland, of course, is the fact that it isn't in the EU either. Banks that set up shop in London to gain a European passport will no doubt want to look elsewhere besides Geneva.

But there are still some "encouraging signs," according to Edouard Cuendet, director of the Geneva Financial Foundation. "Bunge recently repatriated trading and shipping activities to Geneva and Cargill," he notes.

The so-called "Fintechs" (Finnish tech companies), which have much their capital in London, might also seek new horizons if the banks they use snub the UK. Geneva and Zurich are trying to establish themselves as reference places in this field as well.

3. Universities

University fees for European students, including the Swiss, could double or triple in the UK. European agreements state that the tuition of European or Swiss nationals should equal those of British students. But Brexit could change that, making universities and UK schools less attractive compared to European ones.

In Switzerland, training institutions are aware of the comparative advantage they may have, as confirmed by Alexis Georgacopoulos, director of the University of Art in Lausanne (ECAL). "British universities are becoming too expensive," he says. "They are following the American trend, favoring rich students to the detriment of school's quality."

The ECAL costs 1,926 Swiss francs (1,771 euros) per year while a two-year Masters program at the prestigious Royal College of Arts in London costs 28,400 pounds (34,439 euros). European students have benefited so far from the UK government's subsidies that divided this cost by three.

A cost explosion should reduce European demand, as acknowledged by Nunzio Quacquarelli, responsible for the QS World University Rankings. Currently, Britain is the world's second leading destination (after the U.S.) for international students, with 436,000 non-British students (mostly Europeans) in 2014/15.

4. Real estate

Grégory Marchand, an executive with the Barnes real estate company, says that unlike some of his colleagues in Paris, he hasn't gotten any calls yet from Londoners hoping to relocate. But he remains optimistic. "The region has already proven its ability to attract companies," he explains. And when companies come, so do their employees, who then need the kind of luxury real estate Barnes specializes in.

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Lake Geneva — Photo: Damian Zech

"Switzerland's stability is a real asset," says Marchand. "With what has recently happened, this is even more true." The company director does not expect a mass exodus of British citizens, but thinks the Brexit could help revive the luxury real estate market in Lake Geneva, which has lost some color in recent years.

5. EasyJet?

The Brexit is particularly "apocalyptic" for airline companies like Ryanair, EasyJet and International Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways. EasyJet, for example, saw its stock values plummet 34% in just two days.

In its latest communication, EasyJet warns that the Brexit could cut sales by at least 5% in the second fiscal quarter. Carolyn McCall, the company's CEO, expects a resulting price-hike that could turn the low-cost carrier into something "reserved for the elite." The company also acknowledges that it's considering a possible move, perhaps to the Netherlands, France, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

But what about Switzerland, where EasyJet already has such a large presence? The Geneva Airport, also known as Cointrin, is home to the company's largest fleet (23 aircraft) outside of Britain. More than four in 10 passengers are Cointrin customers. And there are plenty of potential travelers: As it stands now, Geneva Airport's top destination is … London.

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