FOCUS: Brexit and rethinking the British in Europe

FOCUS: Brexit and rethinking the British in Europe

Michaela Benson

From the referendum to the negotiations to leave, Freedom of Movement has featured prominently in Brexit. Popular framings of Britain’s decision to leave the EU aligns it with ending Freedom of Movement, seeing it as one-way traffic into the United Kingdom. This is a narrative that demonstrates a significant lack of understanding about what Freedom of Movement is as a legal instrument and the terms and conditions that guide whether someone has lawfully exercised Free Movement. For the purposes of this article, I turn attention to the many Britons who have taken advantage of Freedom of Movement, moving within the European Union for a variety of reasons.

Working with British citizens living in Europe since 2002, it is unsurprising to me that they slip out of view when people start to think about Freedom of Movement. This accords with a more general amnesia about British emigration despite the scale and scope of this migration trend. Popular understandings of the British abroad see them as ‘expats’ rather than migrants, and are dominated by caricatures of old colonials and working class pensioners that are more revealing of British national identity and belonging than of this population. Such limited understandings obscure the heterogeneity of the those who have settled in Europe (and indeed elsewhere in the world), their diverse life circumstances, migration rationales and lived experience. And while it is beyond the scope of this brief intervention to reflect on the origins of this amnesia, it offers an important context for thinking about why the question of what Brexit means for Britons living in Europe has had little traction for the general public, or for the UK government.

Brexit has profound implications for the British citizens who have settled in other European countries. Alongside those of EU citizens living in the UK, their rights and entitlements after Britain leaves the EU have been one focus of discussions over citizens’ rights. Through the research for Brexit Brits Abroad project, Karen O’Reilly, Katherine Collins, Chantelle Lewis, Mike Danby and I have been conducting in-depth qualitative research about what Brexit means to, and for, British citizens living across the EU. As they find themselves questioned about their rights to live in the places they have come to call home, the uneven outcomes of Brexit for their lives make visible the diversity of this population in unprecedented ways. As I argue, Brexit is a time to remember Britain’s emigrant present in all its diversity.

Remembering Britain’s emigrants
British emigration has a history that is closely tied to colonialism. This longer history and its residues are significant in the ease with which British citizens—at least those conforming to a normative (white) understanding of who is British—are able to cross borders and settle. Indeed, at the time of writing, British citizens enjoy some of the world’s highest levels of travel freedom, with visa-free or visa on arrival access to 186 countries and territories worldwide. Even after formal decolonisation, British emigration and settlement in other parts of the world has continued at rates which mean that ‘[I]n per capita and absolute terms it has been and remains one of the world’s largest permanent migrations’ (Hammerton 2017: 8-9). The most recent population statistics from the United Nations estimate that nearly 5 million British migrants live outside the United Kingdom. And yet, as the caricatures mentioned above communicate, there is very limited knowledge and understanding among the general public, by politicians and within social science scholarship of who these Britons are and the lives they lead.

Available statistics are also poor; the United Kingdom does not count its own emigrants instead relying on estimates drawn from registration and census data in the countries where these Britons reside. What we do know is that Australia has long been the number one destination for British citizens moving overseas, with estimates listing this population as over 1.3 million.  But closer to home, there are significant populations of Britons living in other European countries—Spain, France and Ireland are home to the largest populations. The most recent estimates published by the Office for National Statistics list 784,900 British citizens living in the EU-26 likely to be affected by Brexit. However, it is likely that Europe is home to far more Britons than these official statistics suggest; indeed, at 1.4 million, the UN figures present an estimate of double this. Such contradictions highlight that there are significant challenges to enumerating this emigrant population.

While some other countries see their emigrant populations as a significant economic and political force, these overseas Britons receive limited political attention from the British government. Only a narrow set of issues affecting British citizens living overseas ever reach UK parliament: overseas voting rights, exportable benefits (e.g. Winter fuel allowance, Personal Independence Planning, and pensions); and, since June 2016, Brexit and what this means for the rights of British citizens who have made their homes and lives in the EU-27. This lack of political attention is undoubtedly exacerbated by the absence of dedicated political representation for Britons living overseas (in other words, there is no MP who has sole responsibility for these overseas citizens), and that Britons living overseas lose their right to vote in General Elections and Referenda after fifteen years resident outside the United Kingdom. Even in the countries where they live, they largely escape the attention of authorities and the media.

My point in highlighting this neglect, whether through statistical accounts or political representation is that going unnoticed may in itself be considered a form of privilege; in current times not being questioned for the right to enter and settle in other nation-states, should not be underestimated given the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric and practice worldwide. Indeed, the relative privilege of British emigrants, the extent of their settlement around the world, is a stark reminder of the inequalities perpetuated through contemporary global migration regimes.

However, what the statistics hide from view, what might be neglected through a focus on relative privilege, is who among them is permitted to cross borders, and to settle unnoticed?

About British citizens living in Europe
In the case of British migration and settlement in other European Union member states, the privileges outlined above are further enhanced through their European citizenship. Until now, this has meant that they have the right to Freedom of Movement as laid out by EU directives. Freedom of Movement is first and foremost about ensuring the free movement of labour within the European Union, facilitating the migration and settlement of those holding EU citizenship. This permits EU citizens the right to enter and settle in other EU member states, and awards them access to the labour market and social entitlements on the same terms as citizens of that state. Undoubtedly, Freedom of Movement marks out EU citizens as relatively privileged in relation to those of third country nationals.

In practice, a wide cross-section of the British population has settled in other European countries. What this points to is that just as for other migrant populations, ‘the British migrant experience’ is not singular but plural; it is internally differentiated by age, gender, race and class, among others. Their reasons for migrating and for settling in these locations, and the lives they lead in these places, are similarly disparate.

Available statistics communicate clearly that Britons of all ages live elsewhere in Europe; 79% are of working age and below. They work in a range of industries and employment sectors, employed in local labour markets, international and multinational sectors. They have different levels of income, educational qualifications, assets and resources, and thus occupy different class positions. They include British people of colour, people with disabilities, chronic and terminal health conditions, children born and brought up in these European locations, people from all regions of the UK. Their motivations for living in other European Countries are diverse, including the pursuit of work, opportunities to study, and retirement. Motivations might also include family reunion, in the case of dual national families, and evaluations over quality of life, for example, the health and well-being benefits permitted by living in a warmer climate and lower living expenses.

The diversity within the population points to the necessity to interrogate the different ways in which individual circumstances and biographies interplay with the structural privileges that British citizens enjoy. Simply, these privileges are variously embodied and potentially constrained. Brexit is bringing this to the fore in unprecedented ways.

Freedom of Movement, Brexit and the British in Europe
So, what does Brexit mean for Britons living in the EU?

One of the consequences of Brexit is that as the United Kingdom will no longer be in the European Union, British citizens will no longer have EU citizenship, removing their access to Freedom of Movement. It is unclear on what terms—whether as Third Country Nationals or with another immigration status—British citizens will be able to migrate and settle in other EU member states after Brexit.

Although a lesser-known dimension than that of what Brexit means for EU citizens living in the UK, the fate of British citizens already settled in Europe has been at the heart of early discussions within the Brexit negotiations about citizens’ rights. Very simply, Brexit implies a change to their legal status, and the development and application of new legal mechanisms outlining the terms of their continued residence, supported by revised rights and entitlements. To date, the agreements around citizens’ rights guarantee the right to remain of those British citizens who are lawfully resident as EU citizens. The catch for British citizens living in the EU in light of the withdrawal agreement is who is lawfully resident?

Undoubtedly, Freedom of Movement has been a significant factor in the migration and settlement of British citizens living in Europe. But this does not mean that they are lawfully resident. Broadly speaking, the lawful exercise of Free Movement requires that an individual will not be a burden on the state and that they have comprehensive sickness insurance. However, it is unclear whether member states have been enforcing this, for which of their European citizen populations, and under what conditions. The relative privilege of European Union citizens thus extends into less scrutiny of their rights to enter and remain.

Whereas third country nationals are questioned for their right to enter at the border, those moving within the EU are often only evaluated for whether they meet the criteria for lawful exercise of their right once they are in the country (if then). For example, some member states have systems of registration for EU citizens (e.g. The Netherlands, Germany), coordinated so as to prevent inter alia access to rental markets and the labour market. In other countries such systems are obligatory (e.g. Spain), or, as in the case of the UK, do not exist (also France). While registration systems offer scrutiny, it is also the case that they rarely capture all of those they intend and where they do not exist it is highly likely that there are numbers of people whose circumstances fall short of what is required for lawful residence. It is also possible that some of those who believe they have exercised Freedom of Movement, may not even know the terms that guide their settlement.

Since the draft withdrawal agreement was published in November 2018, campaign groups, EU member state officials, the British consular services, have provided guidance and encouragement about the routes to lawful residence in each of the member states. Importantly, this is a transitional measure as it remains unclear what the legal status of British citizens living in other EU members states will be following Brexit.

The UK Government has been keen to reassure British citizens living in the EU that they have secured their rights on similar terms to what they have as EU citizens. And yet, what the negotiations have meant in practice is that, perhaps for the first time, British citizens living Europe find themselves scrutinised for their right to remain. Importantly, at present this is simply the implementation of the terms and conditions that structure Freedom of Movement. It is highly likely that for some, their individual circumstances mean that they do not meet these terms. Simply, while there are undoubtedly Britons living in Europe whose lives will be relatively untouched by the changes to their legal status, for others this ability to live their lives as before is more tenuous. Brexit as a process that transforms people’s rights happens within the context of individual’s lives; it cannot be understood only through the legalese of the Withdrawal Agreement, but through its interpretation and implementation.

The uneven experiences of Brexit for British citizens living in Europe
Talking about Brexit with British citizens living across Europe over the course of the negotiations for the Brexit Brits Abroad research project reveals a complex picture of what this moment of political transformation has meant for their lives. Some of the most vocal responses to Brexit that we have documented through the project express outrage at the removal of their rights. However, for others, resignation more accurately describes their reactions. For example, among those British people of colour living in Europe interviewed for the project, Brexit was presented as business as usual, unsurprising in light of the racialisation and racial violence they had experienced in both Britain and other European countries.

For those more precariously positioned—for example, those undergoing treatment for chronic health conditions, those on low-incomes—fear and anxiety about their futures has been common; importantly, despite the progress of negotiations, it is also clear that the progress of the negotiations has done little to alleviate their concerns about what Brexit might mean for them.

The preparation and drafting of the Withdrawal Agreement, which, at the time of writing had not been approved by the House of Commons, has produced a period of protracted uncertainty in many people’s lives. It is clear that many people have taken efforts to minimise the impact of Brexit and the concomitant uncertainty about their futures it has generated. Actions that we have documented through the project include applications for residence permits, dual nationality (in countries that permit this), civil partnership agreements, and some cases, repatriation. But who can easily secure their futures in a time of protracted uncertainty?

The first thing to say is that these are actions that because of the cost burdens, the eligibility requirements, or the level of knowledge and understanding required to navigate the related bureaucracy, are not accessible to all. At this point in time, British citizens living in the EU are being advised by governments and campaign groups to take steps towards demonstrating lawful residence. It is being pitched as a way of securing their future rights to remain in the countries they call home. What this means is identifying that they meet the terms of living in these countries as an EU citizen and having this recognised by appropriate authorities.

However, for some, this precisely is the moment when they fall between the gaps. By subjecting themselves to scrutiny, some British citizens living in the EU have been found not to have the right to remain, to not be legally resident and have been asked to leave the countries where they have made their homes and lives. Indeed, as I have witnessed through my research with British citizens living in France, following their unsuccessful applications for residence permits applied for in the wake of Brexit, a small number of British citizens have been served with papers asking them to leave France.

The scrutiny of whether individual British citizens living in Europe meet the legal conditions for residence brought on by Brexit is undoubtedly a first-time experience for many of them. While exceptional in the case of British citizens, this is a narrative common in the case of other migrant populations.  What the relative lack of scrutiny of the terms on which they have settled in other European countries have hidden from view until now is the divisions within this population. The actions and practices of governments and individual British citizens in anticipation of the transformation of their rights through Brexit brings the diversity within this population to light in unprecedented ways.

Even before their rights and entitlements are changed in consequence of Britain’s exit from the EU, those who are more precariously positioned and vulnerable among them— those in insecure employment and housing, those relying on welfare support in the places they live, those who are unemployed, and those with chronic or terminal health conditions—find themselves unable to stabilise their lives and restore some sense of security. And as we move towards more certainty about their future rights and entitlements, it is highly likely that there will be an increasing number of cases of those who fall between the gaps.

Hammerton, J. (2017) Migrants of the British diaspora since the 1960s. Manchester University Press.


Michaela Benson is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths. She is the research lead for the UK in a Changing Europe funded project BrExpats: Freedom of Movement. Citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons resident in Europe. She is known for her ethnographic research with British citizens living in rural France, and her conceptual and theoretical interventions into thinking about the role of lifestyle in migration. She has published in peer-reviewed journals across sociology, migration studies and geography; her most recent book, written with her long-term co-author Karen O’Reilly offers an in-depth analysis of the interplay of colonial traces and neoliberal presents, and the governance and regulation of lifestyle migration. She is currently Managing Editor of The Sociological Review. She tweets @michaelacbenson