British heading to the EU: economic migrants or refugees from a hostile environment?

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The UK is experiencing a ‘brain drain’ to the EU. In a recent paper by Daniel Auer and Daniel Tetlow from the Berlin Social Science Centre (‘Brexit, Collective Uncertainty and Migration Decisions’) the authors examine the migration of Brits from the UK to the EU following the referendum in 2016.

The brain drain aspect of their findings was picked up by the Guardian and the Independent newspapers, but there is much more in the report that should concern us as we enter the next phase of exiting the EU in January.

The study uses data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Eurostat coupled with 46 interviews with those who left the UK between 2017 and 2019 and were resident in Germany. It provides “a unique natural experiment” where the “increases in numbers are of a magnitude that you would expect when a country is hit by a major economic or political crisis”. The data shows that after the Brexit vote there was a 30 percent increase in migration from the UK to the EU (17,000 people per year). A 15 percent increase might have been expected if emigration had been in line with the trends occurring at the time.

Alongside this influx to EU countries, there was a 500 percent increase in applications from British nationals for naturalisation in their chosen country of residence (31,600 in Germany). This compares with a 20 percent increase across non-UK citizens living in the EU. As most EU countries accept dual nationality so long as the second nation is an EU country, citizenship of any one country provides substantial rights across Europe.

The report concludes that, “The UK appears to be losing the capacity and economic contribution of a fast increasing number of highly skilled British citizens who have decided to invest in Germany for the long term”. While UK citizens previously had an automatic right to freedom of movement across the EU, they had no need to consider permanent migration. Now, although their rights to remain in their host country are likely to protected, without the citizenship of an EU nation, they will not be free to work or move to another country. Germany permits dual nationality, which will help ease this decision for many, but Spain does not.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

In interview, respondents indicated that a “negative economic outlook in the origin country labour market has a stronger effect on migration flows than an equal-sized positive outlook in the country of destination”. It was not an expectation of financial loss, had they remained in the UK, that pushed most of them to emigrate but “collective uncertainty over future socio-economic conditions … triggered by a major national policy change” that was a primary driver.

In other words, the ‘push’ factors away from the UK were considerably greater than the ‘pull’ factors to another country (in this case Germany). So, while many Polish citizens have dealt with the uncertainty of their future status in the UK by returning to Poland, UK citizens concerned about their uncertain status in Europe following Brexit have taken measures to protect their future security through naturalisation, thereby loosening their ties and loyalties to the UK.

Over a third of those who have moved to Germany since 2017 would not have considered emigrating had it not been for Brexit. Over half felt that in leaving the UK they were taking a considerable risk, with almost two thirds having taken a pay cut or a pay freeze. As Brexit has yet to start in any meaningful way the “changes in migration and naturalisation patterns were not driven by actual socio-economic changes in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, but rather by perceptions and beliefs about future negative consequences”.

The researchers found that “interviewees also reported shame about the referendum result that translated for many into an identity crisis and increased insecurity”. The decision to leave the UK was a response to no longer being able to identify with Brexit version of ‘British’. One third reported that anxiety about Brexit had caused mental health problems while others were concerned about lack of medication in the UK as a ‘no-deal’ loomed and so had taken the decision to move beforehand.

Often decisions to emigrate were made quickly, almost impulsively, with “reduced levels of consideration and level-headedness” and “impulsiveness, spontaneity and corresponding risk-taking”. Half of those interviewed made their decision to migrate and act on it within 12 weeks (in contrast to pre-Brexit decisions of over 12 months’ duration).


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Germany has granted approximately a third of all British citizens German/EU citizenship, while also allowing them to maintain their British identity. Six years residence in Germany is usually required prior to granting German citizenship. Therefore most of those applying for citizenship now would have migrated prior to 2016 and so their initial decision to move was not determined by Brexit. Yet, for 90 percent, Brexit was the reason for their citizenship application and 74 percent said they “would consider giving up their British citizenship if they had to”. In some cases, naturalisation was a necessary step as some employers and accommodation providers were no longer accepting those with British passports.

Having sought citizenship there was a corresponding increase in participants’ levels of social investment in their chosen country, including by learning the language. For many who were resident in Germany pre-Brexit, most had not felt this to be necessary. Two thirds felt a strengthening of their European/British identity and three quarters were positive about their futures in Germany.

So much of the debate about EU and UK citizen migration has focussed on economics – the needs of those on the move and the needs of the host country for labour. Following a peak of 190,000 in 2016, the number of EU citizens coming to the UK for work has fallen to 76,000 in 2020, the lowest level since 2004. Meanwhile as uncertainty around Brexit increases, EU citizens are leaving.

This new research shows that the most qualified and the most able are those most likely to leave; those who probably have most to gain financially and are likely to be the most resourceful in a new country. But it also shows that national identity or patriotism is not solely a product of the nation’s history or culture but how well a country’s values and direction fit with our sense of self. A mismatch can precipitate leaving as much as economic uncertainty. If immigrants feel secure and valued in their dual identity, they will invest in the host country and be prepared to shed their original national identity.

This is a lesson the British government could do well to learn. A hostile environment for ‘foreigners’ is an equally hostile environment for its own citizens, many of whom continue to feel shame at the direction the country has taken since the referendum and the exodus may continue.

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