Article in partnership with Expat.com
On 16 June 2016, the United Kingdom took the rest of Europe by surprise and answered "Yes" to the referendum on leaving the European Union. Since then, London has been preparing its withdrawal. The two parties struggled to reach an agreement that would govern the terms of the separation. Additionally, and contrary to the demands of the political opposition. Boris Johnson stuck to the planned separation date, with or without agreement, and even though many issues had not been resolved. Despite Covid 19, the "divorce" was made final at midnight on the 31 December.
An evaluation of the situation
As we stand now, at the beginning of 2021, with almost 3 million Europeans impacted by Brexit1 (including 300,000 French nationals just in London alone), French ex pats living in the UK and those planning to move there are fully entitled to be asking themselves questions.
Until this point, the European Union had essentially guaranteed considerable ease of movement for its citizens. Both the movements of private individuals and those involving professional initiatives were protected and facilitated, particularly through the principles of ease of settlement and ease of doing business within the European Single Market. Every European citizen was free to go to live and to do business in any member country (TFEU articles 49 and 56). The departure of the United Kingdom therefore has repercussions for an entire system.
Léa, 24, is currently completing her studies in the United Kingdom, and though there are formal steps she can take to remain in the country, she is seriously considering returning to France once she's obtained her degree. "I chose England because it's easy to travel to and move to. I don't want to be constantly asking myself questions and always wondering what the rules are. I'd like to live in a country where my family and friends can easily visit me, and I'm now wondering if this the case with the United Kingdom and what's going to happen in the future, as the rules could quickly change."
It would seem that what the United Kingdom is trying to do is protect the Foreign EU nationals already living in Britain to avoid too abrupt of a break with the situation as it was before Brexit. Until now, in fact, European citizens had the right to freely move and travel across the Channel: there was no need to obtain any kind of authorisation to live in the United Kingdom. The only document required on arriving in the UK was a valid ID card or passport. Citizens of member countries of the European Econcomic Area (of which France is a part) did not require a work permit to set themselves up professionally in the UK. The only procedure you had to go through to work in the country was to apply for a national insurance number, which involved filling in a form. Similarly, opening a bank account required only a form of identity and some kind of proof of current address. Moving to the United Kingdom, therefore, typically involved no formal procedures or restrictions for European citizens. This is still the case in the rest of the European Union.
Where European citizens and living in the United Kingdom are concerned, there appear to be two main situations: that of ex pats who arrived prior to Brexit and that of those looking to move to the UK in the future. In the former case, the rules have already been put in place, though uncertainty does still remain.
EU nationals already in the UK when Brexit took place.
Though the intention to limit immigration is clear on the part of the British Government, it does not appear to be a question of ending all forms of cooperation between British and European citizens after years of facilitated cohabitation. The route now being taken is that of maintaining the existing residency rights of EU nationals already in the UK and who have valid reasons to be there.
It has therefore already been announced that EU nationals who have already been in their host country for five years and acquired a permanent right to remain will retain this status, whereas those who have not reached the required five years on 1 January 2021 will see the counter continue to tick up, unaffected by Brexit, and will be able to apply for permanent residence once the required five years are reached.
Though efforts are being made to ease the process of regularising the situation of EU nationals already living in the United Kingdom, their situation does nevertheless call for administrative steps to be taken: EU nationals who want to continue living on the other side of the Channel need to register with a view to applying for permanent residence status.
The steps involved can be completed online2, thus simplifying the process, especially during a time of pandemic, though this does raise concerns from the EU's point of view, which has expressed reservations about potential failings of the checking and monitoring process and its objectivity. The European Parliament has therefore asked for serious commitments on the part of the UK to guarantee the independence, fairness and reliability of the authority charged with granting "settled status"3.
Marion, 31, has now lived in England since 2013 and first arrived in the United Kingdom via a university programme that enabled her to become a French language assistant in a secondary school. She reveals that Brexit has not been a good experience for her. The referendum led to a feeling of rejection when the results came through; however, her professional entourage were able to reassure her by guaranteeing the continuity of her post. Due to Covid 19, Marion had to change her job just a few months before the end of the transition period, though she feels that her new employer has been very helpful and supportive with the procedures involved. In her view, ex pats already living in the UK and who have a record of working and paying taxes have nothing to worry about: "My post-Brexit situation has never been problematic, because with respect to the British state, I'm compliant with the rules and I pay taxes. I've also been lucky enough, post Brexit, to have reached the point where I've been living in the UK (and working/paying taxes) for five years and thus to have had no problems obtaining my indefinite right to remain."
In contrast to the fears of the European Parliament, EU nationals living in the UK appear to be satisfied with the online procedures4. Like Marion, 150,000 French nationals have already applied for their residence permits so far to date5. The rest have until 30 June 2021 to take the steps required, as long as they began living in the UK on or prior to the last day of 2020.
Faced with the uncertainty of the situation, some are opting to maximise their chances by taking the initiative and applying for British citizenship before having to deal with the procedures and difficulties Brexit has brought about. This course of action is not available to everyone however: it costs more than €2,000 per person and involves an advanced general knowledge test about British culture as well as an English text test… The cost incurred and the knowledge required could be too much for some ex pats6.
Moving to the United Kingdom after 1st January 2021.
Though EU citizens already living in their host countries are being catered for, things are different for people who were not already in the UK on the 1st January 2021. Those wanting to move to the United Kingdom can no longer take advantage of the now expired settlement rules the UK introduced during the transition period.The new process, as presented by the British Government, will operate in the form of a points-based system, with points awarded for certain circumstances and attributes (age, existing job offer – which itself will be subject to conditions – the applicant's level of English at the time of moving to the UK or their level of study, etc.). Depending on each person's particular situation, different rules will apply. Students are thus not subject to the same requirements as qualified workers, who themselves are not placed in the same category as "highly qualified" researchers and scientists. Such systems can already been seen operating in countries such as Canada and South Korea, and they considerably complicate the process of moving abroad. Since Brexit took place, the British people, for the most part, do not seem to be regretting the choice they made, with one survey reporting that two-thirds of the population are opposed to the free movement of Europeans to their country7. Though ex pats already living in the United Kingdom appear to be enjoying a special privilege to remain, it seems relatively clear that public opinion is hostile to the idea of high levels of immigration, and even to the idea of the unrestricted presence of foreign tourists in the country. Such an ambiance cannot be described as welcoming and will no doubt put a damper on the vague hopes of settling in the country harboured by certain Europeans, who still have easy access to many countries offering a similar quality of life, particularly Ireland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, which, like England, is very attractive to ex pats working in the financial sector.
To remain in or leave the United Kingdom
According to the French economy minister Bruno le Maire, the United Kingdom will be hit hardest by the fallout from Brexit8, while France and Europe in general will need to find a way of mitigating the damage. If our minister's forecasts are correct, the British state risks a possible recession, which will even further limit the room for manoeuvre of those looking to move to the country, given the stated intention of favouring British nationals where the search for work is concerned.
Of French people living in the UK who were asked at the end of 2018, 13% stated that they wanted to return to France following Brexit, and 25% were in two minds about it. Though surveys might have made one imagine that a mass return of ex pats living in the UK was on the cards, this has not actually proved to be the case so far9. That said, it's worth noting that the number of searches for accommodation in France coming from the other side of the Channel has increased since Brexit: the editorial management of " seloger.com" announced a 75% increase in visits to Paris property ads emanating from the UK. Whether it's French or British nationals making these visits or not, they do perfectly illustrate the restless and unsettled situation brought about by the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union.
Marie, 32, pregnant and living in Oxford with her partner: "The decision has not been made yet; my pregnancy is still at an early stage, though we are of course thinking seriously about returning to France. I don't know if it's something we're imagining or if it's real, but since Brexit, I've felt like we've been experiencing more everyday rudeness and impoliteness, as if we're no longer wanted. I don't want my child growing up in this atmosphere, though it's hard to abandon everything when you're happy.We're also very scared of losing our jobs; the cost of living is high here, and I wonder if the fact we're Europeans might make it harder to find another post."
Though it's difficult to put a figure to the number of Europeans who've left the United Kingdom due to Brexit, some ex pats have definitely had unpleasant experiences since the referendum, even to the extent of publishing them in a book10: "In Limbo", written by Véronique David Martin and Elena Remigi, collects together 157 accounts of xenophobia associated, according to the authors, with British people speaking out more freely post Brexit.
When it comes to the subject of French nationals looking to leave the United Kingdom, the agency Statista has shared the results of a survey showing that most of those who want to leave the UK will definitely return to France (75%) or stay in Europe ( with 9% going to Spain and Switzerland, to cite the highest percentages)11.
The French senator representing French people living abroad, Hélène CONWAY-MOURET, had already explained back in 2015 that there were too few existing studies into the experiences of French people returning to France after time spent abroad, and that the figures available were far from exhaustive12 Time will therefore tell us more about what consequences Brexit has on French people moving abroad to the United Kingdom.
1 Article Les Echos
3 Article Les Echos
7 Article The Guardian
8 Article Capital
9 Article Challenge10 https://london.frenchmorning.com/2018/05/09/in-limbo-temoignages-europeens-brexit/