In the debates around the upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, the topic of migration has been high on the agenda. According to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics, there are around 2.8 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK, making up 6% of the total UK population. These EU migrants are among the most immediately and directly affected by a potential so-called ‘Brexit’.
To find out how this significant proportion of the UK population might act in the event of Brexit we carried out an online survey. Based on a sample of 737 Portuguese, Polish and Romanian nationals we investigate if Brexit would lead them to; (1) consider remigration or migration to another country; (2) consider applying for permanent residence in the UK or British citizenship or (3) take no action. Portuguese, Polish and Romanian are the three largest EU national groups living in the UK. These three groups also represent three different EU membership phases, with Portugal joining the EU in 1986, Poland in 2004 and Romania in 2007.
What would EU migrants do if the UK votes to leave?
Broadly speaking, EU citizens living in the UK have two options in the event of a change in their legal status as a consequence of Brexit; staying or going. Staying can be broken down into staying by taking ‘no action’ or staying and adopting ‘civic integration’ strategies, which are obtaining permanent resident status in the UK and/or British citizenship.
We asked participants if Brexit would affect their future plans, and what they would be most likely to do over the next five years if the UK votes to stay in the EU. The plans of all three groups of nationals were affected in the event of Britain leaving the EU. Overall ‘Brexit’ has a certain activating influence with only 14% answering that they would not take any action in the case of the UK choosing to leave the EU.
Looking at differences between the three national groups, we find that they are not equally affected by the possible ‘Brexit effect’. Portuguese respondents were 14% more likely to apply for permanent residence or British citizenship if the UK leaves the EU than if it doesn’t. They are also more likely to leave the UK in the case of Brexit than in the case of no Brexit.
Among Polish citizens surveyed, the Brexit effect was more limited, with 3–4% more Poles choosing to either leave the UK or adopt civic integration measures than they otherwise would over the next 5 years.
However, in the case of Romanians, the picture is inverted. More Romanians are planning to leave the country over the coming 5 years if there is no Brexit (15%) than if the UK left the EU (11%); similarly, a higher percentage stated that they would opt for civic integration in the next 5 years (73%) than in the case of a Brexit (68%).
While the findings about Romanians may seem contradictory, it may be related to them having become EU citizens more recently. Romania joined the EU in 2007, with full access to the UK labour market only in 2014, meaning that more Romanian citizens may not, yet satisfy the residency requirements for civic integration options. Nevertheless, our survey indicates that Brexit would not have a large impact on their plans to leave Britain.
Where do migrants see themselves in 5 years?
Our preliminary results indicate that applying for naturalisation is one of the ‘most likely’ actions that EU migrants would take in case of Brexit, but even more so as a five-year plan.
To try drill down into their potential naturalisation plans the survey asked participants if they were planning to apply for British citizenship at any point in the future, regardless of the result of the referendum. 64% of all respondents answered that they were planning on applying for British citizenship in the future. Once again we noticed significant differences between the three national groups with 46% of Portuguese; 66% of Poles; and 73% of Romanians saying they would apply for British citizenship in the future.
Based on responses to our survey, the number of applications for British citizenship is highly likely to increase over the next five years regardless of the outcome of the EU Referendum. However, a vote to leave the European Union may encourage many eligible EU migrants to bring forward their plans to apply for naturalisation, and push many of those who would otherwise not opt to apply for permanent residence or citizenship to follow such strategies even if they are eventually planning to leave.
Although the survey sample reported here is not representative of the EU migrant population in the UK as a whole, our findings show that a large proportion of EU migrants are intending to stay in the UK. We are continuing our work in this area and when the survey closes we will be able to analyse the future naturalisation intentions of (non-UK) European citizens from the other 26 countries living in the UK. In this analysis we will see if there are any differences between EU recession migrants (from Southern EU countries), EU accession migrants from the EU 8 and EU 2 countries, and EU migrants from the more established Northern European countries in terms of their future naturalisation intentions in the UK.
Of the 737 cases included in the current analysis, Poles make up almost three quarters (74%), while Portuguese and Romanians account for 13% each. This distribution is representative of the target population. Just above 60% of the respondents are aged 26 to 40, with about 20% in each of the 26–30, 31–35 and 36–40 age-groups; while 39% of the sample is male and 61% female.
Regarding the participants’ socio-economic characteristics, 69% are in employment (55% full-time and 14% part-time) and 10% are self-employed. Of those who are not economically active, 9% are ‘looking after family’ and 4% are in full-time education. In respect to their level of education, 35% are educated at university level, 13% possess some post-secondary or college education, 36% are educated to secondary level and 13% have a professional or vocational qualification.
By Derek McGhee, Professor in Sociology, Athina Vlachantoni, Associate Professor in Gerontology and Chris Moreh, Research Fellow in Sociology. All authors are in the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton.