“I remember very distinctly the morning when the final counting was done,” recalled Joaquín de Navascués Melero. “My wife and I – she is also Spanish and she doesn’t have a British passport – we were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast and saying, ‘well which country do we go to now’?”
For de Navascués Melero, a research fellow in stem cell biology at Cardiff University who has worked in the UK for nine years, the vote for Brexit came as a shock. Since then his life in the UK has been characterised by uncertainty and a heightened consciousness of his own “alienness”. He told me that for him “the most straining point is not knowing how the social situation is going to evolve: We are already seeing an increase in hate crime – that is all very worrying.”
As an academic from another EU country – though he also has a British passport – de Navascués Melero’s experience is not unique. In an online survey published by the Times Higher Education magazine in March, academics cited the hostile climate generated by the rhetoric around Brexit and a related sense of “diminished psychological safety” as the main reason for considering leaving the UK. The future rights for EU citizens were also a key concern. Of the 131 who responded, 53% said they were actively looking to leave the UK, while 88% indicated they were more likely to consider doing so in the medium to long term.
In a separate YouGov survey for the University and College Union (UCU) published in January, three-quarters (76%) of EU academics indicated that they were more likely to consider leaving the UK as a result of Brexit. A survey by the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK found that 43% of their members would consider leaving.
Attracting and retaining academics from other EU countries is one of the major issues facing the university sector after Brexit – fears have been raised of a potential “brain drain”. The latest indications point to a rise in EU academics leaving British universities.
There are three key reasons for this, which were highlighted by representatives of the university sector in evidence to a recent House of Commons select committee inquiry. First, the uncertainty over future status and rights of EU nationals in the UK for both staff and their dependants. Second, uncertainty over future access to EU research funding and, third, the perception that the UK is becoming a less welcoming place for people from abroad.
In order to understand more about the impact of the Brexit vote, I spoke with three fellow academics who, like me, come from another EU country: Gianluca Demartini from Italy, a data scientist at the University of Sheffield who has worked in the UK for three years, Monica Giulietti also from Italy, an economist at Loughborough University who has worked in the UK for 23 years and the aforementioned Joaquín de Navascués Melero from Spain. I asked them to share their personal experiences of how the result of the EU referendum has affected them. Their stories highlight the issues raised by the university sector and provide insight into the personal impact of the climate in the UK since the referendum – and the shift in social status of people from other EU countries living in Britain.
“All of a sudden the world has changed,” de Navascués Melero told me. “You may not perceive it all the time, but it’s there … you are more conscious of your alienness after Brexit.”
But the daily experience at university has not changed, as Giulietti, the Italian economist, emphasised:
In the kind of environment where we work, we are certainly privileged that there is a sense of being valuable. There is an international environment where it is just normal to have people of all different nationalities. You are respected for your role and no one questions your nationality.
All the academics I spoke to said they felt valued by their universities. The concern is with what is going on outside this “bubble”. Nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric in public debate and media coverage has generated a sense of an increasingly alienating climate for those now categorised under a broad label of “EU migrants” and “foreigners”.
While it is often stated that EU migrants are valued for their contribution to society, the use of these terms define them as outsiders. This form of social categorisation can have a significant impact on people’s lives and sense of belonging. As the anthropologist Fredrik Barth (1969) argued in his seminal work on ethnic relations, distinctions between people that emerge at the societal level, whether based on nationality, ethnicity or religion, have implications for everyday social interactions.
“It made me feel more different,” Giulietti told me. “Whereas in the past I never had to think about it, I was just a person doing a job and bringing up a family.” In the wake of the Brexit vote she “started questioning things, questioning whether I belong” – even within her British family. She found this feeling, and the new sense of vulnerability that came with it, very surprising.
“I’m a self-confident person,” Giulietti explained, “I don’t easily feel vulnerable, I know I can defend myself in any situation”. But now she feels “more vulnerable” than she has ever been. “Despite the fact that … as a rational person, I know that there is nothing dangerous, there is nothing really to worry about, but things are different.”
Demartini, the data scientist, talked about how he could feel this where he lives – a small town outside Sheffield. He said that when talking to people in the shop for instance, “you get questions, people asking when I’m going to be leaving and this sort of thing. It has happened to me and it has happened to a lot of my colleagues”.
De Navascués Melero said people in the Spanish community had started wondering if they could speak freely in Spanish to their children. “We do, we haven’t changed that, but we look around, just in case,” he said. Other European academics have spoken about being abused in the street for speaking German.
Meanwhile, Giulietti raised a different, but related reaction: “The argument everyone makes is: it’s not about you, it’s about the others.” But as she says, there may be another family just down the road telling another European person it’s not about you. “So it could be about me. It depends on who is looking.”
Cosmopolitan to the core
The sense of alienation potentially produced by such a climate can change the way you see yourself in relation to society. Until last year, Giulietti was a member of a panel of technical experts for a government department. She was in the process of interviewing for the same role for the following year, but decided to pull out. This was in the aftermath of statements by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 about further curbs on immigration and proposals such as companies having to publish the number of international staff they employ.
I had been mulling over it because of the rhetoric about foreign workers generally. Basically this idea that all of a sudden people are no longer welcome. Useful members of society, who have been contributing, are no longer relevant. Why would I want to help make decisions for a society where I’m no longer considered a fully functioning member.
Statements by leading Brexiteers such as Michael Gove that the country had had enough of experts contributed to this feeling. She said: “As an intellectual, as an expert, you are not allowed to talk. Yes, the experts should be challenged, but they should not be kept quiet.”
The Leave campaign and the debate in parts of the media was also rife with strong appeals to patriotism. “The concept that seems to be underpinning that rhetoric is difficult to accept,” said Giulietti. “This idea that you have to be attached to the place where you were born.”
Research has shown that migrating career professionals from a range of occupational groups often identify with some sense of being “citizens of the world”. My own research shows that those who develop such a cosmopolitan identity have a strong preference for social environments that are open, diverse and international and tend to feel alienated when the opposite is the case. They embrace the idea of transcending national attachments, but this does not mean they are rootless. They also maintain their national identities as part of a broader cosmopolitan sense of community.
As Giulietti put it: “I see myself as Italian, European, part of a bigger picture than what is being proposed here.” She feels that, in the current climate, the message seems to be that there is something wrong with what she was trying to achieve by going elsewhere to seek opportunities.
De Navascués Melero also emphasised that he is attached to Spain, but not that strongly. “I’m Spanish the same way I’m a man or heterosexual or white – it’s an accident of birth. I build my identity through what I do, not what was bestowed upon me.” As a result of this personal stance he said he found it “uncomfortable to be in a country where identity is something that goes with the accent, with the colour of your skin and with your culture”. He added: “I may be over-dramatic, but unfortunately that is something that is happening worldwide, it’s not just in the UK.”
Will I stay or will I go?
Demartini has decided to leave. He is in the process of moving to Australia where he has accepted a new position. He told me that the decision was a complex one.
I’m not saying that I’m leaving because of Brexit, that would be too strong a statement, but out of many reasons this is one as well. The plan was to stay for a longer period of time. So things have changed.
De Navascués Melero is staying for now but hinted that his longer-term intention might also change. “We will see how things evolve.” Putting things into perspective, he said:
If we were going through this in Spain, for instance, my immediate reaction would be to leave the country as soon as I would have a professional opportunity – and in that sense I feel the same in Britain. So if things become too untenable and this is a society that turns its back on reason, I would just leave. I’m not going to subject my family to that.
For Giulietti, who has a British husband and two daughters, leaving is not on the cards – although she has started to wonder whether this is an environment where she wants to work. Whereas before she would not have thought about moving back to the continent, she now considers it a possibility. “To be honest for many of us there are other opportunities in more fulfilling environments, so I started doubting whether I did want to continue. Certainly, I decided I didn’t want to work for the government.”
The life and career choices of highly skilled migrants tend to be closely associated with the characteristics of the social and organisational environments where they live and work. The professionals who participated in my research study actively sought environments that were culturally diverse, international and where cosmopolitan values of openness, tolerance and mutual respect were collectively upheld.
Citizens’ rights and research funding
Uncertainty related to future immigration status and rights is also a significant part of the issue – although the impact of this varies depending on individual circumstances. Giulietti decided to apply for permanent residency, but was rejected in the first instance – a relatively common occurrence. Along with the extent of the bureaucratic burden, the process can end up feeling like an insult as other academics have highlighted. This further contributes to the perception of the UK as an unwelcoming place.
Successful in her second attempt, Giulietti is now in a position to be able to apply for British citizenship.
I feel in the short term it has to be done. I think in light of the fact that I don’t know what is coming around the corner – what if I’m diagnosed with an illness, what if I had to retire? I think it’s better to address it while at least I know what the rules of the game are. Yes, they are likely to sort it out, but it could be in a way that is even more difficult or complicated for all we know.
There are other factors influencing the career choices of academics, particularly access to EU research funding and collaboration, which Brexit has also made uncertain. “If it becomes difficult for the things we need to do in order to have a career, a meaningful, successful career, then I could question the professional choices and also become more open-minded about alternative options,” said Giulietti, who described to me how an EU funding application she was involved in with partners in other European countries collapsed after the Brexit vote. Other scientists have described being dropped from research collaborations and hesitations about applying for EU funding proposals.
University leaders have called for science and research to be prioritised in Brexit negotiations – in terms of future rights of EU staff and students, access to EU research funding and ensuring that Brexit does not result in barriers to research collaboration.
In a speech in March, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michael Barnier, emphasised the top priority of citizen’s rights on both sides and also indicated the importance of research collaboration. The government’s Brexit white paper set out similar priorities. It also stated that “we will remain an open and tolerant country, and one that recognises the valuable contribution migrants make to our society.”
An open society?
While citizens’ rights and the framework for research collaboration are concrete matters for Brexit negotiators, if Britain wants to remain an open and welcoming country, politicians need to take action. Future immigration law and policy should move away from the government’s current hostile environment for migrants and the singular focus on cutting immigration numbers. More also needs to be done to prevent discrimination as well as hate speech and hate crime. And there would need to be a change in rhetoric on immigration and less focus on playing politics with identity.
Brexit will influence the rights, social status, identity, family life and careers of millions of people whose life is intertwined with free movement. The big question is how. For some EU citizens in Britain, the shift in social status brought about by the Brexit vote and the rhetoric around it is profoundly unsettling. It goes to the core of subtle but fundamental matters of belonging, particularly for those who have, perhaps for decades, been fully integrated members of British society.
My own experience echoes much of what the academics I spoke to shared. What I felt that day after the Brexit vote was a sense of loss. Free movement and the rights that come with it has fundamentally shaped my life. Because of it I was able to study, build a career, make a life and a family across several European countries. My British husband is also set to lose his EU citizen rights. For us, this is about what it means to live a life that transcends national borders. Freedom of movement makes it possible in a way that is unique. As a European family we cherish this more than we realised.
Now in light of another unexpected election result, the political debate on Brexit seems to be opening up and shifting. It is becoming even less clear what Brexit will mean and other models are again being discussed. I feel a glimmer of hope, not just for openness and tolerance, but also – however far-fetched – for the preservation of freedom of movement for generations to come.