According to UN figures, there are around 1.2 million British citizens living in another EU country while there are some 3.3 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK, under minimal restrictions thanks to the European Union’s free movement principles.
What exactly will happen now is unclear: experts in European and international law cannot even say with any great confidence what the consequences of Brexit will be.
But who are these Europeans whose future potentially hangs in the balance? Where are they from and where do they live?
UK citizens living in the EU
Of the 1.2 million Britons living abroad, the largest communities are in Spain, Ireland, France and Germany. Many are retired and live on savings and UK pensions. It is estimated that the British government spent around 1.8 billion euros on state pensions to British retirees living elsewhere in the EU. The British National Health Service, which foots the bill for British pensioners’ medical treatment in the EU, paid out just over 600 million euros to other EU countries in 2013/14.
Non-British EU citizens living in the UK
While expat Britons may favour starting new lives in the south and west of Europe, UK-bound EU citizens tend to come in greater numbers from central and eastern Europe. Poles for example make up the most numerous group of non-British EU nationals living in the UK (883,000 according to the UN).
So what will happen to British nationals living on the continent, and similarly EU citizens living in Britain, now that the UK has voted to leave the union?
Much will depend on the post-Brexit deals and treaties that will be struck between Brussels and London in the aftermath – and an immediate distinction is likely to be made between existing residents and potential new arrivals. Nothing will change overnight – the UK will remain a member of the EU while the official departure procedure is played out. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty imposes a two-year deadline. Some “Leave” campaigners have suggested the process will take longer.
Existing residents’ rights unaffected?
Politically, even in the event of severely damaged relations between the UK and the EU, both sides may see an interest in moving to shore up the status and rights of existing residents. Certainly nobody seems to be envisaging mass deportations. Even the most vociferous “Leave” campaigner, the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, has said that EU migrants who have come to the UK legally will have the right to remain. The “Vote Leave” campaign says EU workers already in the UK would have their “rights unaffected”.
However, as far as the legal position of residents is concerned, there is less certainty. International agreements such as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties have been cited as granting protection for citizens’ acquired rights. But although pro-Brexit campaigners have argued that its application is clear, its relevance in Britain’s case has been called into question. The convention has been said to refer to the rights of states rather than individuals.
France is not a signatory to the Vienna Convention, and legal experts said before Brexit it would not help Britons living in France.
There has been contrasting rhetoric on the issue. Britain’s former finance minister Lord Lawson, a prominent “Vote Leave” campaigner and French resident, told France’s English-language newspaper The Connexion that Britons living in the country would have little more to fear than “some extra paperwork”. However Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned of dire consequences: referring to the 100,000 Spaniards living and working in the UK, and the 400,000 Britons doing likewise in Spain, he said Brexit “would be very negative for everyone and from every perspective”.
Amid the uncertainty, many EU migrants living in the UK have reportedly been applying for British citizenship, while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Britons on the continent have been taking steps to seek the nationality of their adoptive countries.
Future tit-for-tat restrictions?
The case of people moving between a post-Brexit United Kingdom and other EU countries in future could be much more problematic, especially as the core argument of the “Leave” campaign has been based on “taking back control” of the UK’s borders in the face of unprecedented levels of migration from other European Union countries. If Britain were to impose draconian restrictions on migrants from the EU in future, then would the rest of Europe continue to welcome British arrivals with open arms?
It is highly likely that EU migrants would no longer have an automatic right to come to the UK to live and work, with reciprocal restrictions quite possibly imposed on Britons heading abroad.
Brexiteers have suggested an “Australian-style points” system for applicants seeking to come to the UK, and of encouraging talented migrants from outside the EU. Non-EU immigration still makes up more than half the overall total, so the pressure to reduce migration from other EU countries could be immense – especially as this is what is seen as having changed parts of the UK so radically, with negative effects on jobs and services, despite acknowledged benefits to the economy.
If in future EU migrants into the UK were subject to rules applied to non-EU workers, then three-quarters of EU citizens now working in the UK would not meet current visa requirements, according to a report in the Financial Times quoting research carried out by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. The report claims the impact would be particularly felt in sectors such as hotels and restaurants, farming, construction, manufacturing, energy and transport.
It is difficult to know exactly what immigration system a post-Brexit government would impose. As has been pointed out, “Vote Leave” is not a “government-in-waiting”. Leading “Leave” campaigner Boris Johnson has said in the past, when he was mayor of London, that “talented French people” would be “tous bienvenus” (“all welcome”) to the UK capital in order to flee high tax rates at home. Whether less-qualified young people from France or other EU countries would still be able to travel to Britain to live and work is far more doubtful.
As for Britons seeking to move abroad to a European Union their country had just left, again there is much uncertainty. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has spelt out that “leaving the European Union would mean that British citizens would lose their right to move freely, work and do business” within the EU. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also warned that other EU countries responding with similar restrictions to those imposed by the UK would be “unavoidable”, warning in an interview with the BBC of “a race to the bottom”.
Looking for clues
Do several European countries which have existing arrangements with the EU, but are not inside the bloc, offer a guide in terms of the rules regarding rights to reside and freedom of movement?
As members of the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are subject to the EU’s existing rules of freedom of movement to gain unfettered access to the EU’s Single Market. That means their nationals have the right to live and work in the EU, and vice-versa.
Those inside the UK advocating a potential Brexit, often cite the EU’s arrangement with Switzerland as a possible way forward. While not a member of the EEA, Switzerland also signed a freedom of movement treaty with Brussels to obtain unrestricted access to the Single Market. However, in 2014 the Swiss voted in a referendum to introduce quotas on EU migrants from 2017. Brussels responded by threatening to suspend its bilateral agreement with Bern should such quotas be imposed.
Should the UK decide to join the EEA, or something similar to what Switzerland has with the EU, Brussels may well demand that Britain too accept the free movement of workers. But would such a scenario be acceptable to a post-Brexit government, given how politically hot the issue of immigration has been during UK’s EU referendum campaign?
For the moment, there still appears to be no clear idea as to what future immigration arrangements might be, unless London was somehow able to negotiate a separate deal.
“Nobody really understands the complexity of leaving the EU because no one has ever left the club”, said Deloitte’s head of UK immigration Jurga McCluskey as quoted in the Financial Times. “If we do leave, the landscape for immigration will change significantly – it won’t be so much what we do but who we chose to work with. Who will those migrants be?”