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What has happened with migration between the UK and the EU since Brexit?

“We just don’t know at the moment,” says one expert on emigration.

IT’S NOW OVER five years since the UK voted to leave the European Union, a result partly driven by concerns over immigration. So what’s happened with migration since then?

The honest answer is that we don’t know with any certainty, especially not since the pandemic struck. The number of British citizens in the EU is contested, while the UK’s Office for National Statistics admits “we can’t simply count people in and out at the border”.

EU free movement laws allow citizens of each member country to move visa-free for work and study. There are some restrictions – the Irish authorities invoke them to remove a few dozen EU citizens from the country every year -  but it’s much, much easier than normal immigration procedures.

Brexit heralded the end of free movement between the UK and the EU. Or rather, most of the EU: free movement between Ireland and the UK continues under the Common Travel Area. 

Unlike the EU version, free movement in these islands isn’t guaranteed by a binding treaty: it’s a more organic, informal arrangement. But while some experts worry that the Common Travel Area isn’t neat and tidy, it’s seen EU-UK free movement come and go, and means that visa-free migration continues for Irish citizens moving to Britain and vice versa.

From referendum to pandemic

Although the vote for Brexit (and against immigration) took place on 23 June 2016, the door didn’t actually slam shut until 31 December 2020. Until then, free movement continued as before despite the referendum while withdrawal negotiations dragged on and then under a transition period. 

The very fact of the vote was initially and anecdotally credited with sparking a “Brexodus” of Europeans from Britain, and persuading others not to come in the first place.

“Within our own membership many people left the UK and returned to the EU”, says Luke Piper of EU citizens’ campaign group The3Million. “The UK’s decision to leave did make many people feel unwelcome”. 

Researchers have found plenty of people reconsidering their place in Brexit Britain. In one recent survey of 2,400 people, 59% said that it “increased the likelihood of them leaving the UK”.

However among an overall EU population numbering in the millions, “we have not seen a great ‘Brexodus’”, says Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. “Most EU citizens in the UK are settled, have jobs and lives in the UK, and have remained, despite the political changes”.

While British migration data is notoriously unreliable, the best estimates available show a modest increase in emigration since the referendum. In the year to March 2016, just before the referendum, an estimated 220,000 EU citizens departed. That rose to 250,000 in the year to March 2020.

Meanwhile, over 5 million have now been granted permission to stay under the EU Settlement Scheme. Not all still live in the UK – some will be hedging their bets – but the overwhelming majority of existing residents were able to stay if they wanted to and knew about the scheme.

As one European resident told researchers at the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank:

“I am against Brexit. I think it will be horrible for the economy. But I will go down with the ship. This is where I feel at home and I would be devastated if I had to leave”.

Estimated immigration has fallen more steadily and significantly, down from 500,000 a year to a pre-pandemic 366,000.

Again, the official stats are quite ropey, and the specific numbers are probably wrong. But even allowing a massive margin for error, it seems that more EU citizens came to the UK than left, despite Brexit undoubtedly leaving a sour taste for some. 

“Overall”, says McNeil “the UK’s EU migrant population has continued to grow (though much more slowly), rather than to decrease”.

The combined effect of slightly higher emigration and lower immigration still adds up to a significant slowdown. Putting it all down to a direct Brexit effect is trickier, though: there were other things calling migrants home between 2016 and 2020. 

“Factors such as the fall in the value of the pound relative to the Euro and the Zloty following the referendum; the increasing economic opportunities in various EU member states, including Poland; and concerns about long term opportunities in the UK after Brexit are all potentially factors that may have affected people’s choices”, McNeil tells The Journal

“There is no particular evidence that post-Brexit administrative factors had a significant role to play, and little to suggest that stigmatisation of foreign workers was a major driver of emigration or of the fall in immigration”.

Post-Brexit and post-pandemic

The British authorities have even less idea of what’s happened since free movement ended. The Office for National Statistics says: “There has been speculation that during 2020 and 2021 there was an exodus of people – particularly EU citizens – leaving the UK to go and live elsewhere. Did this actually happen? Simply put, we don’t know yet”. 

That’s because the pandemic has played merry hell with the already unreliable records on migration and the foreign population, including an airport survey that had run continuously since 1961 but fell victim to Covid. 

Professor Alan Manning of the London School of Economics says that “although estimates that the number of migrants in the UK fell by 1.3m have now been largely discredited, some European workers have returned home”. On the other side of the balance sheet, very few have been applying for work visas under the new immigration system.

The latest employment figures recorded 200,000 fewer EU workers in the UK than pre-pandemic, while the ONS has tentatively recorded an overall population fall of 110,000 in 2020.

But because the end of free movement coincided with the pandemic, the Migration Observatory’s Madeleine Sumption insists that “it is still too early to assess the impacts what the impacts of the new immigration system have been”.

British citizens in the EU

If EU migration to the UK is a bit hazy, the picture for British migration to and from the EU is a positive pea-souper fog.

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“We just don’t know that at the moment”, laments Professor Michaela Benson of Lancaster University, an expert on British emigrants. “At the moment, when we’re doing research, we’re using statistics that are out of date by five or six years”.

According to the European Parliament, EU records showed “about 857 000 UK citizens in the EU at the beginning of 2019; however, the actual number is estimated to be much higher, with some pointing to 1.2 million UK nationals in the EU”.

The 1.2 million figure comes from the United Nations. The British ONS doesn’t like the way that’s calculated, and have come up with a method of their own. Benson’s “Brexit Brits Abroad” project has said that, on a wider definition of who is a migrant, it could be as high as 3.6 million.

Disagreement on the number of British citizens living in the EU at any one time means that it’s next to impossible to get a sense of how migration patterns have changed due to Brexit.

A good chunk of the British emigrant population lives in Ireland – over 100,000, Benson says. “The only migrant group, of any nationality, that exceeded the British in Ireland was Polish”. 

Thanks to the Common Travel Area, that cohort has been largely spared the Brexit worries of their counterparts in France and Spain.

British residents of mainland European countries have been able to get residence permits, although the system varies from country to country. In some, including Spain, Germany and Italy, residence rights are rolled over automatically (terms and conditions apply). 

In France and a dozen other countries, people have to apply for the right to stay, like their compatriots in the UK. All have deadlines that have either already passed or will by the end of 2021.

But the end of free movement means that even existing residents won’t have the pre-Brexit right to hop from country to country within the EU. British nationals will need to get visas in future: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Not everyone seems prepared for that reality. Piper recounts “a conversation with a Brit who is wanting to move to Greece to do the whole ‘new life in a new country thing’. I asked if they’d checked what immigration and other rules they needed to satisfy. They were astonished”.

“The fact that Britain has left the European Union is not going to stop people moving”, Benson says. “It’s just going to change the conditions under which people move and that, in turn, will change the shape of those migrations”. How exactly remains to be seen.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

CJ McKinney  / Legal Affairs Journalist

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