EU referendum: one year on – nationality politics

Immigration was central to the EU referendum. In particular, the principle of freedom of movement, one of the pillars of the EU, became a key target of the Leave campaign. The promise to curb the flow of EU nationals into Britain proved particularly effective in mobilising Leave voters. Far less attention was given to the impact of Brexit on over three million EU citizens leaving in the UK and one million Britons residing in the EU. The issue of their legal status was put aside, and after a year it is still
unresolved.

Attempts to get both sides to pledge support for a rapid resolution concerning the legal status of EU nationals living in Britain received cross party support before the referendum but evaporated soon after. To date, calls for a unilateral gesture of good will from the prime minister towards EU nationals have fallen on deaf ears. However, there are signs that the political landscape emerging from the 2017 general election may force the Government to soften its position.

A year of uncertainty

A year of uncertainty over their right to remain in Britain is taking its toll on EU nationals, with some evidence pointing to an increase in mental health and anxiety disorders among EU residents. A number of online and offline discussion fora have emerged, offering legal advice and mutual support in the face of the everyday and bureaucratic challenges the referendum has created for EU nationals, especially with regard to securing legal status in the UK. To many of them, the referendum result, and the realisation that their positionin Britain was now both legally precarious and subject to the fluctuation of party politics, came as a profound shock.

The options open to EU nationals vary primarily according to the length of their stay in Britain. Many long term residents are applying for permanent residence and British citizenship. Others are contemplating leaving the UK, especially those who, because of their age, working status, family arrangements, or length of stay, feel excluded from existing pathways to secure their status. Others may be doing both, securing their legal position in Britain, while considering options elsewhere in Europe.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ latest quarterly release of provisional long-term international migration estimates, net migration is at its lowest level for nearly three years. The drop is partly due to 25,000 fewer Poles and other Eastern and Central Europeans coming to work in Britain, and an increase of 16,000 in those leaving.

Uncertainty over their future legal status has also triggered a rise in the number of EU nationals and their family members applying to the Home Office for permanent residence – five times higher than last year – and British citizenship, which is up 35% in the past year. Detailed Home Office data on naturalisation show that the surge in citizenship applications is particularly noticeable among the citizens of older EU member states, with an increase in citizenships applications among Italian, French, and German nationals in the most recent period.

In that same period, some of the largest number of applications, however, came from Polish nationals who, since 2010, have submitted applications for citizenship in large numbers.

Forty years of EU membership

The focus during the referendum on recent arrivals, particularly from Eastern Europe, has overshadowed recent and past immigration from older EU member states and, more generally, the fact that the UK has been a member of the EU for 40 years. For example, while the inflow of Central and Eastern Europeans, whose levels of immigration have been relatively high since those countries entered the EU in 2004 and 2007 respectively, has received extensive media coverage, far less coverage was accorded to the mobility of EU nationals from Germany, France, Spain and the other older member states. These have made up an increasing share of EU migration to the UK in recent years; most recent estimates for 2016 show that 53% of the most recent immigrants estimates from the EU come from EU14 countries (member states joined in 2000s).

Besides, this attention on latest arrival has also obscured an inconvenient truth. Throughout four decades of EU membership, there has been intermingling of people which can be most clearly seen in the growing number of mixed-nationality EU families in the UK and their offspring, many of whom were born in the UK and hold a British passport. Data from recent birth statistics show that almost 12% of children born in England and Wales in 2015 had at least one EU-born parent (the figure rose from 8.1% in 2009), pointing
to their potentially increasing demographic importance.

This is a growing but as yet understudied and underreported segment of British society. In the post-EU referendum context, in which the rhetoric about curbing EU immigration has permeated political, media, and popular discourses, producing a stark “us and them” narrative, the question left unasked and unanswered is what the human and emotional costs of this will be if, for a large section of the British population, “us and them” are the same.

By Nando Sigona, Research leader and Laurence Lessard-Phillips, research investigator at the UK in a Changing Europe. You can read the full report here.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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