Brexit's new migration borders 'fracture ties' of mixed UK-EU families

Passengers walk next to the Eurostar Terminal at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, Monday Dec. 21, 2020, next to a Eurostar train.
Passengers walk next to the Eurostar Terminal at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, Monday Dec. 21, 2020, next to a Eurostar train. Copyright AP Photo/Lewis Joly
By Alasdair Sandford
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A study finds Brexit has created 'new borders' within families where one partner is British, the other European, due to differences in citizenship and migration status — causing much anxiety over future mobility.


Brexit is not done for many British-European families, even two and a half years after the UK left the European Union.

"One of us is a UK citizen and one is a citizen of the EU. And we have lost the right to migrate as a family," said one British man living in Belgium, quoted in a new report — the latest for the MIGZEN project exploring the long-term impacts of Brexit on migration.

"Husband and daughter cannot return to UK and live there with me," said a British woman, currently in France.

The divorce deal that set the terms of Britain's departure was supposed to cement the existing rights of Europeans living in the UK and Britons on the continent, despite bringing to an end the principle of the free movement of workers.

But the research study finds high levels of anxiety among "mixed status" families — mostly where one partner is British, the other European. Just over a fifth of respondents said they were in such relationships.

"British-European families after Brexit" draws on the testimony of more than 400 British and European nationals to explore how the change of status within families impacted their lives.

It found that six years after the EU referendum, half said differences in citizenship and migration status had affected their decisions to move or stay put. There were still strong negative feelings over questions relating to entitlements, and anxiety relating to the loss of freedom to move from one country to another in future.

Depending on their previous migration status, Brexit either "introduced new borders" or "deepened the impacts of the borders on their lives," say the report's authors, Dr Elena Zambelli and Professor Michaela Benson of Lancaster University, and Professor Nando Sigona of Birmingham University.

"This reveals further impacts of Brexit at the level of the family, making, fracturing and reconstituting their ties within one or multiple countries and affecting their own and their family members’ mobility and settlement options as a family."

Britons in EU can no longer move freely between countries

"Moving and travelling has become much more difficult," said a British woman living in Italy, quoted in the report.

"I feel more tied to staying where I am living now as it’s not so easy for us to move elsewhere," said a UK national living in the Netherlands.

The UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement struck before Britain's exit from the EU in January 2020 safeguarded the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, and Britons living on the continent.

It protects residency and social security rights for them and family members, and maintained freedom of movement until the transition period expired at the end of 2020. People already resident by that date were allowed to stay and apply for permanent residence after five years.

However, for Britons in the EU, although the deal guarantees rights in host countries it grants no automatic rights to move to other EU countries to live and work.

"The UK’s departure from the EU marked British citizens’ loss of their EU citizenship and, with it, of the privileged intra-EU mobility rights it bestowed," the report says.

"For mixed-status families including members of the directly-affected populations, the consequences of Brexit stretch beyond the rights individually retained or lost, and the survey responses reveal the extent to which their members’ positions, feelings, orientations, choices and constraints are deeply intertwined."

Seven out of ten respondents were UK citizens, three-quarters of them living in an EU or EEA (European Economic Area) country. The remaining quarter were in the UK or an overseas British territory.

New Brexit rules force families to alter plans

The report found that family reasons were dominant in determining people's decisions to move country since the Brexit vote in 2016 — and this was higher among mixed-status families than for those of the same nationality.


Some advanced their plans due to changes in residency rules. A woman in Germany with dual British-German nationality said her family moved from Luxembourg to Germany before the cut-off date at the end of the transition period, to be "in the same country as my elderly mother and sister, so we wouldn't have problems later".

Nearly three-quarters of people in mixed-status families said Brexit had affected their migration plans. Some left the UK as they "no longer felt a welcoming environment".

"I moved to be with my partner and child since the environment in the UK for foreigners had become toxic since Brexit," reported one man with dual British-Italian citizenship, who moved to the Czech Republic.

Mobility constrained by Brexit

Some moved to the EU from the UK because of Brexit but then decided to stay put in one place for the foreseeable future in order to safeguard rights. "Now I would be a little more reluctant to move without good reason, as I will lose my withdrawal agreement rights," said a British woman in her thirties living in Denmark.

Others changed nationality in order to safeguard rights or avoid being stripped of career or retirement plans. 


"After Brexit we realised my onward movement for retirement or work within the EU would be impossible, so I became a Belgian citizen," said a British-Belgian dual national woman in Belgium.

For some UK-based mixed families, contemplating a future move to the EU carries new burdens, plus the risk of losing newly-secured rights.

"My husband is British, and I am Swedish. He has lost his EU freedom of movement," said a Swedish woman living in the UK. "If we move to the EU, I will now have to show I can support my husband. If I leave the UK for over five years, I will lose my EU settled status." 

The report quotes people expressing a wide variety of concerns for their status, for the loss of future rights such as health care or pensions, or dilemmas over potential moves. Others complain of the bureaucracy involved in securing their residential rights.

All have a common predicament: they see their future mobility being constrained by Brexit.


Transition from 'mobile' to 'migrant' families

The report says the families' testimonies reflect a "transition from members of mobile families to members of migrant families," underlining a feeling that the right to move freely to live and work in other countries was being lost, replaced by a second-class arrangement.

Concerns do not only cover residency: even travelling between countries is sometimes seen as a potential problem.

"I worry about travelling with my child who is an EU citizen. I am not," said a British woman in Denmark.

"We are meant to leave the children on their own in a different passport queue to ours — ridiculous concept," commented a German woman living in the UK.

Others still were concerned about post-Brexit changes in UK rules whereby, since March 2022, the non-British spouses or family members of British citizens returning to the UK are subject to UK domestic immigration controls relating to family reunification.


"We were planning to return to the UK on my husband's retirement (around 2041) but now think it is more likely we will stay in NL for the rest of our lives," said a British woman living in the Netherlands.

'Our marriage will have to end'

For some, Brexit appeared to have created or aggravated divisions within the family, the differences in status having engendered negative emotions. "Our marriage (since 2003) will have to end," concluded a German woman living in the UK who wants to return to her home country, whereas her British husband does not wish to move if it means becoming a "third country" family member — in other words, a non-EU citizen living in the EU.

The "British-European families after Brexit" report says it exposes how Brexit put borders around European families, fracturing ties with countries, and affecting people's mobility and settlement options.

It concludes that the effects will be felt well into the future.

“Looking forward, some of the tensions highlighted in this report may become more salient as respondents move to different stages in their lives. In particular, issues of status dependency, elderly care and retirement may become sources of frustration, regret and/or divisiveness among spouses and partners," it says.


"For British citizens in the EU who secured temporary residence and EU citizens in the UK who secured pre-settled status under the Withdrawal Agreement, there remain lingering uncertainties as to what will happen when it lapses and what effects it will have on the mixed-status families they are part of."

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