The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

15 Sep 2017


Relationship with the EU

A Day of Action

Wednesday saw a day of action in support of EU Citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe which took place in London. Organised by a coalition of campaign groups that includes, among others The 3 Million and the British in Europe—grassroots campaign groups—it promotes the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and UK citizens resident elsewhere in the EU27 following Brexit. It reflects the concerns of many within these populations that their voices are not being heard.

From citizens’ rights to identity and belonging

A complex bundle of rights and entitlements currently supports the migration and settlement of these populations. After the third round of discussions there are still unresolved differences in the European Union and UK positions on such citizens’ rights. Questions remain about, inter alia, the terms on which these populations will be able to remain in the places they have come to call home, onward mobility, and rights to family reunification.

Simply put, the rights and social entitlements that supported the ability to live and work in other European Union member states were the ballast upon which people crossed borders, settled elsewhere and made lives for themselves. The potential loss of these is deeply felt; it has evoked grief and mourning. It has led many among these populations to question where they belong, their place in the world, and to re-evaluate their futures.

Remembering Brexit’s impact on the British in the EU27

Yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall on the future rights of UK citizens living in the EU27 focussed on remembering Britons living abroad and the diverse impacts of Brexit for their lives, work, and family relationships. The expectation of reciprocation that lies at the heart of the UK’s approach means that there has been limited discussion of the future rights of these British citizens within the papers on citizens’ rights prepared by the UK government. The debate was an important and timely reminder that lives of these 1.2 million Britons are in legal limbo, real lives already affected by uncertainties.

It is exactly on these themes that BrExpats: Freedom of movement, citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons living in the EU27 focusses. And while the negotiations are ongoing, and no legal transformation in rights will take place until withdrawal, we are also documenting how Britons resident in the EU27 experience Brexit and its impacts on their lives as it unfolds. Even though withdrawal from the European Union has not yet taken place, it is having a tangible impact on the lives of many of these Britons writ large in their Brexit stories.

Who are the British in Europe?

Since Brexit, I have become increasingly frustrated by the misconceptions of the British living in the EU27 that circulate in the media and elsewhere. These often focus on one-dimensional figures—the pensioners recreating ‘little England’ in the sun, while the ‘expatriate’ ‘old colonials’ sip gin on their verandas. Our intention is not to perpetuate these representations, but to encourage dialogue that recognises the diversity of the Britons who have made other EU members states their homes, and the undoubtedly heterogeneous impacts of this on their lives and futures.

However, beyond these stereotypes we know that the British population living abroad are a diverse population. It includes families—at times dual national families—with young children, young people seeking work and educational opportunities, as well as those who have retired to other European Union countries.

There are people who have set up their own business in their place of residence, and those relocating for work; they work within local economies, for transnational businesses, multinational organisations; on full-time, part-time or freelance basis. They have different motivations for having moved abroad that might include, work, love, education or, indeed, a combination of these.

From European citizens to British migrants

Their efforts to make sense of Brexit make clear the impact of EU referendum on the identities of these Britons and how they understand their place in the world. Earlier in the summer, I returned to the Lot, southwest France, the site of my previous research with Britons who had made this corner of rural France. The contrast between how these Britons had described themselves in the early 2000s and now, in 2017, drew attention to a cognitive shift from citizen to migrant.

In the 2000s, they had distinguished themselves keenly from migrants. For some, this was intended as a way of conveying the fact that they recognised the relative ease with which they had been able to cross borders. They were aware of their privileged position as European Citizens moving within the European Union.

For others, it was a statement intended to distance themselves from tropes that presented migrants as a problem for receiving communities. And contradictory as these positions might seem, for some, these co-existed. These reflections on not being a migrant were often paired with their efforts to distance themselves from the negative connotations of expatriates or tourists.

But in 2017, identifying themselves as migrants is no longer off the cards. Brexit appears to have rewritten the boundaries between migrant and citizen. And this shift feeds into the way they understand themselves and their lives. However, recognising and claiming migrant status for themselves was often accompanied by a series of caveats. They were contributing to local economies through their taxes, shopping in local shops and markets.

They were in the country legally. This draws attention to the moral questions that people—including the British who live elsewhere in the EU27—wrestle with as they consider who is a migrant as much as it does their concerns for their lives, futures and post-Brexit identities.

These are just some initial reflections and the research is ongoing. But what is clear is that Brexit—in the case that current rights are not upheld and fully protected—will have a more profound impact on some of these Britons than on others.

By Dr Michaela Benson, Research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe and Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Listen to Brexit Brits Abroad podcasts here.


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