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Freedom of movement – the right to live, work and access welfare arrangements in another European Union member state – is one of the founding principles of the EU. Freedom of movement became a central theme for the Leave campaign. Playing to public concerns about high levels of migration, they argued that stopping freedom of movement was critical to curbing these flows.

An estimated 3 million European citizens are resident in Great Britain, while the latest figures suggest that there are 1.2 million Britons living elsewhere in the EU. The latter represent a diverse population that includes those working, studying and retiring abroad. Just as for their EU counterparts living in Britain, Brexit might bring about a significant transformation in the lives of these British migrants as their political rights and social and financial entitlements are renegotiated.

Britons abroad and the EU referendum

In the run-up to the referendum, Britain’s expatriates featured in two prominent ways. First, in that those who had lived overseas for 15 years or more found themselves ineligible to vote. Second, because of the potential consequences of large-scale repatriation. The inability to vote in a referendum that could have such profound consequences for their daily lives reinvigorated the question of overseas voting rights for British citizens, sparking political mobilisation and campaigning among Britons living abroad around a “vote for life”. On the other hand, Britain’s expatriates were depicted as a social problem waiting to happen. The prospect that elderly British pensioners currently living in other European countries might be forced to return promoted concerns that Brexit might place further pressure on an already strained National Health Service.

These headlines paint only a partial picture. The British populations living elsewhere in the EU are a more diverse group than a focus on pensioners suggests. Similarly varied are the motivations for their emigration. These include work, study and family reunion. Freedom of movement may facilitate such migrations, but is not the only thing that enables the migration and settlement of individual migrants.

One year on…

Freedom of movement does not unilaterally affect British populations living in Europe; the removal of this foundational right of EU membership will also have consequences for EU nationals making Britain their home. October 2016 saw the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Movement, a forum emphasising the value of freedom of movement to the British economy and British society, as well as the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and Britons resident in other EU member states.

The general election has caused further disquiet among British overseas residents about the right to vote. The Government issued a white paper in October 2016 outlining its plans to legislate to grant lifetime voting rights to individual British citizens who had previously been registered to vote. However, this had not become policy before the general election.

British pensioners living abroad have also continued to make the headlines. While claims about what their return might cost the NHS
continue to be made, concerns about what might happen to pensions paid abroad have also surfaced. Simply put, while current arrangements allow for Britons living in the EU to receive pension increases in line with inflation, withdrawal from the EU might entail the end of this reciprocal arrangement. This could result in the freezing of pensions and hence a real-term reduction in the incomes these pensioners receive.

The lack of clarity about what Brexit might mean for Britain also affects British populations abroad. This uncertainty is profound and is causing significant unease.

The future for Britons abroad

The end of free movement will undoubtedly impact on who can migrate to, and who can continue to live and work in EU member states. It is possible that one response to Brexit might be repatriation, particularly of those populations made more vulnerable as a consequence. If this transpires, proper planning will be necessary not merely in terms of the potential costs in relation to health and social care, but also with regard to how the reintegration of these people into British society will be facilitated. Absent repatriation, it is important that clarity is provided as soon as possible as to what Britons living in other EU member states will need to do to continue their residence.

These are just some of the questions we might consider. Looking forward, it is important to carefully attend to how Britain’s withdrawal from the EU variously impacts on Britons living and working elsewhere in the EU.

By Dr Michaela Benson, Research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe. You can read the full report here.


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