In post-Brexit Britain, the grass is always greener 

Article published on Nov. 18, 2016
Article published on Nov. 18, 2016

The 4 million EU citizens living in the UK and the 1 million Britons living in Europe are headed for an uncertain future. Even months after the referendum, they still don’t know what will happen. Given the most recent developments, the referendum may not even pass as legally binding which only adds more question marks to the whole development. 

“Nobody knows what form Brexit will take,” says Claire De Than, professor of law at City University London. “People are leaving out of fear. If the government doesn’t want to lose skilled workers, it is in its interest to issue some guarantees with clear dates.”

As it stands, it is unclear whether or not Article 50 will pass as being legally binding, meaning Brexit may not happen after all. Gina Miller has highlighted the lack of precedents for EU exit makes the matter debatable in court, which is what is currently happening. The legal case is scheduled for hearing in early December in the Westminster Supreme Court, and challenges the government’s ability to trigger Article 50.

Alan Dashwood, professor of European Law at Cambridge, sees a grain of hope in the entire ordeal:  “A twist in the political kaleidoscope may provide an opportunity for a change of mind, formalised by a second referendum or a general election, once the implications of Brexit have properly sunk in.”

Stuck in the midst of conflicting declarations and U-turns are EU and British expats. For EU citizens, “the safest option is to apply for British citizenship, or marry a British citizen,” says De Than. But for many of them this is not possible.

View from the island

Many EU expats living in the UK lament the cost and distress of applying for permanent residency, UK passports, or comprehensive health insurance. Sabine, a 40-year-old German administrator living in the UK since 1999, said: “My application and my passport have now been with the Home Office for over 3 months and I'm still waiting for a reply. It is extremely stressful.”

Others said they could not afford it, or simply did not qualify and would have to “wait and see,” despite having lived, worked and paid taxes in the UK, and having British children. In March this year the cost of settlement, residence and nationality went up by 25%. To become a naturalized British citizen, it is now £231 more expensive than in January. “A citizenship ceremony fee of £80 has been added to the application fee,” a government footnote informs.

Not many EU citizens feel like celebrating. Many of them spoke of increased anxiety, depression, and feeling unwelcome since the referendum. Some reported increased xenophobia. JN, a 42-year-old Dutch teacher said: “British people joke: have you packed your bags yet?”

Where is largest percentage of those born abroad in UK? via Telegraph.co.uk 

Andrew, an IT manager from Scotland reported being verbally abused on a bus while speaking in Finnish to his Finnish wife. “I find the newly racist and xenophobic situation intolerable,” he said. For fear of being singled out as foreigners, people choose not to speak their native language in public.

Many fear for their professional future, or even losing their health subsidies. Helene from France said: “My employers want to redefine themselves as a 'truly local British business,' in their own words. I had an appraisal last week where all they could talk about was the fact that I should go back home.”

Dzintra, a 33-year-old Latvian, arrived in the UK in 2005. Her child was born with cerebral palsy. She fears losing health and disability support, and of not being able to find a job: “Any attempts to find employment would be twice as hard, if we estimate the chances of the interviewer being pro or against immigration as roughly 50/50”.

Economic downturns are also affecting expats. Monika, a paralegal from Poland, said: “I have lost 20% of my savings due to sterling drop if I exchange it to Polish currency, which is an equivalent of 2 years of my work here. This is a very depressing time and I can only wish I made a different choice when emigrated 10 years ago.”

Professor De Than suggests that: “People who are here are relatively safe. It is not possible to get entirely rid of freedom of movement; EU bodies will expect some guarantees. But Britons living abroad could find that their status is threatened.”

View from across the Channel

Nicola, a 51-year-old marketing and communications specialist, is a British citizen living and working in Brussels. Upon trying to apply for Belgian nationality, she said: “I have been to my council 6 times already since June 24th and still feel no closer to having a complete dossier. I have been asked to change my surname and have had to have numerous documents certified and translated at my own cost, of course, and in my own time.”

Where are the British expats in Europe? via Telegraph.co.uk

For some British expats this is not even an option. Roxanne, a 25-year-old British citizen born from German parents, lived in Germany until the age of 13. She then moved to Aberdeen in Scotland before recently moving to Austria for her studies. She did not apply for dual citizenship at birth, and does not qualify for German citizenship as she has not recently lived in Germany for a long enough period of time.

She has experienced xenophobia in Germany while working at a bakery, being verbally abused by a local customer who wished her “a happy deportation,” called her a “traitor,” “scum,” and said she should “be allowed only in your house until deported.” He later followed her in the street until she threatened to call the police for hate speech.  

“In Austria the presidential vote in December could be won by an extreme right president. That is a concern that many Britons in Europe have. We feel very invisible and very abandoned by the UK and the EU, but more so by the UK”, she says.

In search of clear information and guidance, EU expats in the UK and Britons in mainland Europe are going through stressful months and spending considerable amounts of money and effort to secure their right to stay in their chosen countries. What’s more, their lives may be overturned by a decision they did not get a chance to influence. It is still unclear what Brexit will look like in the end, but it certainly feels scary for those affected already.