In addition to the disorderly handling of Covid-19, the UK is experiencing the worst economic crisis since the 1970s. With job opportunities dwindling, an increasing number of graduates and skilled workers tell me they are considering leaving the country.
The phenomenon is made worse by the consequences of Brexit. The outcome has prompted tens of thousands of Britons to apply for another nationality, most popular being Irish: if one of your grandparents is from the island you can be eligible for a passport. Others I’ve spoken to have applied for French, German, Romanian and Cypriot nationality, through marriage, ancestry or acquisition of property. European citizens are also seeking British citizenship to ensure they can continue to live normal lives in Britain, criticising a deeply flawed ‘settled status’ system, which is butchering their civic rights. This situation has also led to new migration movements.
Bristol has the reputation of being one of the most Euro-friendly cities in England. In 2015 it was the EU Green Capital, and just before the Brexit referendum it applied to be one of the EU’s cultural capitals. Since I came here in 2015, I’ve made as many European friends as British friends for sure – people from France, Spain, Germany, Greece, Romania, etc. And some have been living here for more than 20 years, without any paperwork requirements.
Many of my British friends and many of the people I interviewed have also lived in Europe for a while, or have strong ties with EU member states, such as family living there. So the past few years have induced major turmoil for most of them. The situation is the same for many in London, Brighton or Liverpool. And I don’t even mention Scotland, or the unsolvable question of the future of Northern Ireland…
British, yes, but European first
Let’s consider a few of these citizens. Damien, for instance, a librarian from Birmingham, used to live in France; his sister lives in Germany and their parents are Irish. With this background, he has always felt European. We met in the very Europhile café at the Arnolfini art gallery. In his view, Brexit is a self-inflicted wound. It is important for him to maintain a link with the EU, and so his first reaction after the referendum was to apply for dual nationality. He told me:
“I immediately contacted the Irish Embassy, yes. And asked for a form to have an Irish passport. Both my parents are Irish, my father died so I had to bring my mother’s documents: birth certificate, marriage certificate, as well as my birth certificate, bank statement, proof of address, 80 euros, and I sent this file by post. Two days before the UK left the EU, I received my passport by mail. It was reassuring to know that I had a nationality that allows me to be part of the European Union. And I did that to pass this Irish nationality on to my children as well. This requires that I get them a passport before they have children of their own. But it’s also a matter of solidarity, to feel we belong in Europe, to me it was the obvious this to do…”
So many people have applied for Irish citizenship, which seems like a strange turn of events. More than 94,000 applications came from Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales in 2019 alone, according to the Irish Times. Some 65,136 passports were applied for in 2016 by citizens in Northern Ireland and another 59,377 by people in Great Britain with Irish roots.
One of my best friends asked her mother to become Irish as well, as all their family in Liverpool stem from the island originally. She had lived in Spain, France and Italy for years, and couldn’t imagine not being able to live and work again in these three countries, which feel so much like home. Most Britons I know who are married to a French or Italian person also tried to get citizenship in these countries through their spouse.
Other Britons are especially worried about the economic crisis inflicted by Brexit and aggravated by the current pandemic. They are considering moving to a European country despite Brexit, to ensure a better professional future for themselves. The procedures on the EU side are indeed more welcoming than our settled status process. If you work in France for instance, you can apply for residency, though this will not give you the same rights as EU membership used to confer. If you work part time, have you own business, or work in the arts intermittently, then the situation is very complicated.
Departures of Britons to the EU have increased by 30% since the referendum, going from 56,000 per year to 74,000. Some experts already worry about a “brain drain”. For artists who travel regularly to Europe, such as touring musicians and guest visual artists, being able to work cross borders is a critical issue, for which there are currently no solutions.
From welcome and equal, o an administrative hell
For Europeans citizens wishing to stay in the UK, the situation can be even worse. If they have lived in the country for more than five years continuously, they can apply for settled status to have the right to stay, but the conditions are onerous. If they have travelled too often, paid their taxes in their home country, lived in between two countries, or if they came more than five years ago but were sent abroad for work for a while (in the EU or further afield), they might be refused. If they have been here for less than five years they will be granted a pre-settled status and will be checked again in another five years…
I spoke about these issues with Joanna. She is Greek and Australian and has lived in England for 24 years. Her husband and children are British but she does not intend to take up a third nationality, especially because the cost is very high. The fees amount to at least £2,000, but can be more if legal advice is required. In addition, she believes that the post-Brexit status for Europeans does not offer any stability.
“I have no reason to become British. But I had to apply for settled status and had to send in my ID card, tax information, etc. I finally got it after two months. But I don’t think we really know what all the consequences of Brexit are going to be. Brexit really stressed me out a lot and I was ready to leave the UK if I didn’t get the status.
“However, I met a lot of Europeans (Lithuanians, French people, etc), who did not see the danger. I met an Italian who had lived here for less than 5 years and who didn’t care. They didn’t want to believe that they would be asked to leave… But I prepared for it because even with this status no one has any security about a future here.
“Many of the Europeans who live here are a new generation of immigrants, not farm workers like my parents, or sweepers like my grandfather, or factory workers; they have degrees, sometimes teach at university. They think they have stability and security in this country. But with Brexit there is no more stability. These workers could be excluded at any time by any change in the government’s policy.”
The most disappointing thing for her is people’s attitudes, which in her view, changed the day after the Brexit vote. “For example, people look askance at me when I speak Greek to my children in public now. So I stopped doing it for a while because people kept asking me where I was from. It really bothered me.”
One of the disadvantages of settled status is that it no longer allows Europeans to spend time in Europe and then to return to the UK. For Christophe, a German translator and lecturer working between several countries, it was therefore urgent to become British. He told me:
“My decision was brought about by Brexit, yes absolutely. Before I didn’t even think about it because as European citizens we had all the necessary rights. We didn’t need to spend these huge sums to get another nationality. But the settled status is a new category of immigration introduced for no real reason and it is an administrative ghetto that locks up three million Europeans living here! They will then be at the mercy of subsequent governments for their future rights. I didn’t want to be stuck like this and I don’t like the way this status was thought.”
Thousands of key workers are also EU citizens – such as nurses and teachers. Many of them haven’t applied for settled status, due to lack of time, or because they are worried about the outcome. Not only is the application process very expensive, but some countries don’t allow dual citizenship.
More than 3 million Europeans have applied for settled status, but hundreds of thousands of others have left the UK. One of the consequences of this could be staff shortages in key worker positions. With the future of EU citizens becoming more uncertain every month, hundreds of thousands more could find themselves forced to leave the country.
One of the ironic consequences of Brexit will be that more and more foreigners will have to become British to keep what used to be their automatic right as welcome EU citizens. I’m not sure that it was what Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage and Priti Patel had in mind.