The result of the referendum in favour of leaving the European Union has thrown almost every aspect of British life up in the air. The main political parties are in crisis, the financial markets are in turmoil, the breakup of the UK is closer than ever and British people are scrambling to apply for Irish passports. But perhaps most uncertainty surrounds the status of non-British EU citizens living in the UK. The referendum was framed around their presence in the country. Now there are no clear answers about their future.
The increase in non-British EU citizens living and working in the UK is the result of EU rules on free movement. EU citizens can live and work in any EU member state without needing a work permit. According to UN figures there are around 3.3m non-British EU citizens living in the UK. They mainly come from Poland, Ireland, Germany, Romania and Italy. And there are about 1.2m British citizens living in other EU countries. They are largely to be found in France, Spain, Ireland and Germany.
The terms of the UK exit will be determined during a negotiation process, starting from the moment Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is invoked by the UK. During this process, which can take up to two years – with the possibility of an extension – the UK will continue to be fully bound by the principle of free movement, thus allowing non-British EU citizens to come and stay in the UK.
But once the UK is out, the fundamental principle of free movement will no longer apply, and there is great uncertainty about what will then happen to all the non-British EU citizens living in the UK. Their future will depend on the kind of new agreement that will be negotiated between the UK and the EU.
Different options have been proposed during the campaign. Some have suggested the Norway model, whereby the UK would still be part of the single market, and thus continue to benefit from the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. However, this alternative has been rejected by most Brexiters as it would not allow the UK to control EU immigration levels – the issue at the heart of the referendum debate.
Others have suggested an Australian-style points-based immigration system. The UK would select which EU and non-EU workers would be allowed in based on their skills. This would have a significant impact on people in lower-paid sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, hotels and hospitality, as they would most likely not qualify for entry into the UK.
What has been made clear is that there is no possibility of cherry picking the best parts of the single market. Despite the overwhelming support among MPs and businesses to keep the UK in the single market, this option will be difficult to pursue as it would mean continued free movement of people. Which option is chosen will very much depend on what the next UK government looks like, who is at its head, and how the referendum result is interpreted.
Even if free movement is restricted in the future, political leaders of Vote Leave have come out with reassurances that nothing will happen to those EU citizens already living in the UK, or to UK citizens living in other EU countries. They are echoing legal experts who say that collective expulsion is prohibited by international law.
But expulsion is the extreme version of events. There are plenty of ways for EU citizens to be made to feel unwelcome in the UK before they are actually kicked out.
The loss of EU status may create the need for work permits and visas. They come with a lot of bureaucracy and expense.
Even before that happens, there is a sense of insecurity. Non-British EU citizens are already reflecting on their place in Britain. Adriana Chodakowska, the editor of the Polish news site Londynek, has said that many Polish people feel “lost, scared and uncertain”. And with the significant increase in the number of reported racist attacks targeting non-British EU citizens across the country since the referendum, many feel threatened.
Talking to several non-British EU citizens who have made London their home, there is also a sense of desolation and frustration with the direction the country has chosen.
While both the EU and the UK will be committed to reaching an agreement that protects the status of EU citizens living in the UK, there will be a long period of uncertainty leading up to it. During that period, many of those highly skilled and educated EU citizens who have reservations about the immigration narrative that has evolved during the course of the referendum, and who believe in the idea of the EU, may well choose to relocate. The beneficiaries of their skills are likely to be Berlin, Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris, and perhaps, just perhaps, Edinburgh.