Brexit and inequality: why are the EU and EU migration missing?

Brexit and inequality: why are the EU and EU migration missing?

Lorenza Antonucci and Simone Varriale

Since the results of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, British sociologists have dedicated much attention to Brexit, with a number of special issues in sociology, political economy and social policy. Curiously, however, mobile EU citizens are absent in contributions linking Brexit to wider processes of class and racial inequality, even though the most contentious issue in the renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU – the failure of which led to the call for the Referendum – was non-UK EU citizens’ access to social benefits.

In our recently published piece for Current Sociology we put the EU and European migration back into the wider debate on Brexit ad inequality. We claim that a focus on intra-European inequalities is essential to appreciate how Britain contributed to the unequal Europe it aims to leave, and how EU citizens’ unequal migrations make Brexit an asymmetrical process. Our work is inspired by world system theory, Hall’s use of Gramsci’s insights regarding the racialising effects of capitalist core–periphery dynamics in Europe and Bourdieu’s work on economic and cultural capital. This framework helps us highlight the role that notions of ‘progress’ and ‘backwardness’ have historically played in Europe and in the construction of the EU project, shaping relations of material and symbolic hegemony between different European regions and influencing unequal European migrations. Brexit – which was a vote on the relationship between the UK and the EU – needs to be understood within this context.

Beyond the white working class narrative
A significant part of the sociology of Brexit – as we tentatively call it – is about voting patterns and inequalities. It is now well established that differences of education, income, generation, geography and race played a role in shaping who voted for Leave or Remain. Initially, it was the notion of the ‘left behind’ that dominated this narrative: Brexit was presented as the rebellion of a disenfranchised working class that had been hardly hit by deindustrialization and, later, austerity. This narrative has been challenged both by evidence highlighting the importance of middle class voters for the Leave victory, and by growing research about Brexit and racism. As astutely pointed out by Gurminder Bhambra, the working class in the ‘left behind’ narrative is always assumed to be white, thus obscuring the multicultural nature of the working class in Britain and the impact that Brexit will have on those already affected by institutional racism. Non-UK EU citizens have been largely absent from this discussion, and only very recently some studies have started exploring the impact of the Referendum over their everyday lives. This work provides much needed empirical evidence. Nonetheless, EU migrants remain marginal both to the mainstream debate about class and racial inequalities and to broader considerations about the role of the UK in Europe.

How the UK shaped the EU as we know it
The Brexit debate is often underpinned by the idea of the UK as marginal (or outsider) to the EU project. However, the reality of EU policy-making could not be more different from this. The EU is not a uniform club, but one in which the UK played the role of a core country, in contrast to the periphery of Europe which had to passively accept EU policies. Britain’s decision to enter the EEC – albeit a contentious one – was a manifestation of the need to protect ‘white British national identity after Empire’. At the same time, the EU project was not a uniform construction, but a mixed entity of ex-colonies, countries that have a peripheral role in the development of capitalism and even the former British colonies of Malta and Cyprus, which joined the EEC to continue their trade role with their former Empire.

Despite its public position of Euro-skepticism, Britain has always played a very influential role in shaping the EU project and many of Britain’s defining flagship policies have been uploaded at the EU level, from the European Single Market to the role of social investment during New Labour. These policy flagships have exacerbated the core-periphery divide within the EU. The underpinning idea of the knowledge-based economy is, for example, that Southern and Eastern ‘backwards’ countries had to upskill their youth to become more similar to Germany, France, the UK and Scandinavian countries. This policy flagship remained very influential on Southern and Eastern European countries despite the fact that they have not been able to absorb more skilled workers, given the unskilled features of their labour market. This, as we clarify below, was going to be allegedly addressed by EU freedom of movement (hence EU migration).

During the post-2008 Euro crisis the UK’s position has been, not surprisingly, aligned with that of other core countries in supporting European austerity. Through the hegemonic role of Germany and with the support of aligned countries, like Britain, the countries of the peripheries have been pressured to reduce their deficits and comply with EU economic criteria. Our analysis of the EU recommendations to the UK shows that it was one of the most aligned countries to EU policy-making pre-Brexit. Brexit can and must be included in this framework of core–periphery inequalities, as Britain has contributed to the making of the unequal Europe it aims to leave.

EU migration as an effect of liberal Britain (more than neoliberal EU)
Britain’s role within Europe in terms of both capital accumulation and symbolic hegemony helps contextualise and explain the patterns of EU migrations that caused controversy before and during the Referendum.

Before Brexit, the British strategy in Europe consisted of the promotion of EU workers’ mobility in order to operate an efficient allocation of skills for the UK (and other core countries) within the European economy. The motivation behind the policy of non-restriction towards migrants from Central and Eastern Europe, adopted by the UK with the 2004 enlargement, aimed precisely to ‘fill gaps in the low-skilled sector of the labour market’. Low-skilled mobility has attracted much criticism during Brexit, but it is an essential feature of the liberal British model of the labour market (divided between low-skilled and high-skilled work) and it is a policy that was adopted to keep wages low and sustain Britain’s economy in Europe after Empire.

These core-periphery inequalities within Europe shape both the directionality and meaning of European migration, particularly in the form of a narrative about the UK as a more ‘meritocratic’ country. Before Brexit, research on both Eastern and Western European migration to the UK showed that Britain, particularly London, is associated by European migrants with a more ‘modern’ and meritocratic labour market and with a more ‘multicultural’ and tolerant society, in contrast to the ‘backward’ economy and mentality of their countries of origin.

Intra-European inequalities also feed into forms of racialisation that frame different groups of Europeans as more or less culturally ‘developed’. Eastern Europeans have been targeted by an ‘Orientalist’ discourse in the UK and have been affected by higher rates of downward mobility and more direct experiences of discrimination compared to Western Europeans. The stigma against EU migrants that has been anecdotally reported during the Referendum is also differentially distributed among Central and Eastern European populations, with Romanian EU migrants in particular being associated with ‘degenerate’ behaviours like laziness, crime and benefit scrounging.

Unequal European migrations
Economic and symbolic hierarchies between Eastern and Western and Southern and Northern Europe have a strong impact on European migration, but they also intersect with class, gender and skin colour in complex ways, producing unequal European migrations and problematising simplistic ethno-national classifications. Considering this intersectionality allows appreciating the asymmetric effect of Brexit on different parts of British society that tend to be excluded from (British) sociologists’ reflexive assessments of what Brexit means for inequality.

Western European migrants are frequently depicted as professionals in news coverage, and while they make up a good portion of academics in the UK, inequalities of economic, cultural and social capital complicate their positions in Britain’s stratification system and their access to housing, jobs and sense of self-realisation. This challenges easy assumptions about Western EU migrants as middle class, equally privileged and white, but it also forces us to dissect similar stereotypes about Eastern EU migrants, like their association with social immobility or lower-skilled migration. Indeed class, race, gender and other divisions create inequalities within Eastern and Western EU migrant groups, producing underresearched configurations of inequality and privilege.

In our article, we argue that a post-Bourdieusian focus on how gender, race and class shape access to unequally distributed forms of capital can help re-situate both EU- and non-EU migration within sociological discussions of inequality, both in historical terms and in terms of how these divisions will produce unequal migrations in post-Brexit Britain. For instance, EU migrants’ access to unequal resources is complicated by both gender and racial inequalities. While European migration has long been associated with whiteness, recent studies suggest that black EU migrants are more likely to experience racism and occupational precarity and are thus prevented from accessing different forms of capital. Similarly, EU migrant women working part-time and on zero-hour contracts (usually in ‘feminised’ sectors like paid care and cleaning) may be unable to prove their residency rights and to access social benefits, while non-working partners and unpaid carers may find it more difficult to prove their residency status in the application for ‘settled status’.

A sociology of Brexit freed from methodological nationalism
A sociology of Brexit that discusses class as separate from race risks reproducing methodological whiteness. Similarly, a sociology of Brexit that does not take into account the positionality of the UK in unequal Europe, or the meaning (and the very existence) of unequal EU migrations, is affected by methodological nationalism. While the current discussion of Brexit and inequalities remains organised as a contest between class analysis and race and ethnicity studies, we use intra-European inequalities and intersectionality to overcome the focus on Britain and on (British) citizens. This allows us to address migration flows as unequal and, at the same time, as connected with core-periphery inequalities that have structured the European project since its origin. In this way we also re-position migration back into the sociology of inequality. We see the sociology of inequality as necessarily interconnected – for epistemological, political and ethical reasons – to race, class, gender and (indeed) migration.

Finally, our framework opens up new questions that remain invisible in the current sociological debate. For example, the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to which it is ideologically aligned, stimulates a reflection on the new conflicts that are emerging within Europe, namely the issue of the distribution of resources between the core and peripheral countries. As the ‘Brexit effect’ – namely, the desire to withdraw from EU membership – becomes increasingly popular across Europe, sociologists need to understand this process in relation to the emerging politics of inequality. A focus on core-periphery divisions allows taking into account more invisible dynamics, such as the unequal effects of austerity on the European peripheries and its intersectional dimension, as austerity in the peripheries is differentially experienced depending on citizenship status, race, class, gender and age. The exclusion of unequal European dynamics from the debate reflects a limited political vision of Brexit, one that sociologists need to challenge.


Lorenza Antonucci is Lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the School of Social Policy of the University of Birmingham. Lorenza’s research explores the causes and effects of inequality across Europe. She is the author of ‘Student Lives in Crisis‘ (Policy Press, 2016) and tweets at @SocialLore. Simone Varriale is Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Lincoln. Simone’s research explores how inequalities shape patterns and experiences of migration and globalisation. He is the author of ‘Unequal Youth Migrations’ (Sociology, 2019) and ‘Globalization, Music and Cultures of Distinction’ (Palgrave, 2016). He tweets at @franklyMrS.

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