In a joint research effort by Oxford in Berlin and the WZB – Berlin Social Science Centre, we combine national immigration statistics reported across the European Union with extensive background interviews provided by British emigrants in Germany, in order to highlight the dramatic impact of Brexit on people’s lives on both sides of the channel. While an increasing number of Brits are packing their bags and emigrating to continental EU, many of those who have already left the UK are trying now to preserve their livelihoods in the EU by obtaining a new citizenship.
More than three years have passed since the UK decided to leave the European Union. And as of now, the British people remain EU citizens. While there has been much debate – without real success so far – on customs regulations and checks along future borders, the uncertainty surrounding residency and citizenship rights has significantly stirred up migration and naturalisation numbers between the UK and the remaining EU-27 countries. OECD figures and recent national government statistics show that the number of Brits emigrating to the EU-27 has risen continuously since 2010, but has spiked following the Brexit referendum in 2016.
The in-depth interviews we conducted with UK citizens that have left the UK for Germany since 2008, support these numbers (you can read more in yesterday’s Observer article Number of Britons leaving for Europe hits a 10-year high.
For almost all our interviewees who left the UK since the referendum, Brexit was cited as a key driver indicating that it has played, and continues to play a significant disruptive role in current migration patterns. Temi from London, for instance, left a secure, high paying job and decided in a quick impulsive operation to move to Berlin after she saw the EU referendum being announced in May 2015. Her main motivation being to try and protect her rights as a British European citizen.
Andreas who has lived in Aberdeenshire all his life and is having treatment for leukaemia, suddenly upped sticks and moved to Germany in November 2018:
“My parents got wind of the chance that my chemo care might be interrupted with a no-deal. So, at the end of last year, mid-treatment, my mother who has German roots, decided she’s done with any more uncertainty and we left. We now live in German social housing together with a group of Syrian refugees and have the peace of mind that I can finish my chemo and hopefully make a full recovery.”
The uncertainty surrounding Brexit has evidently caused large numbers of people to pack their bags – in both directions. Unfortunately, migration numbers, especially for people leaving the UK, have a high error rate because they often rely on approximations from passenger surveys. This has also been pointed out previously by the Migration Observatory at COMPAS. For that reason, OECD data based on national immigration statistics, provide more reliable figures despite presently being available only until the end of 2017.
Perhaps even more striking, naturalisations of British citizens in the EU-27 have surged dramatically. For instance, the reported increase from 2015 to 2017 in the number of UK citizens granted German citizenship is way above 1000%. For the EU-27 as a whole it was a 6-fold increase in Brits securing an EU passport in 2017 compared to 2015.
Post-Brexit, British citizens applying for citizenship in one of the EU-27 countries may be required to renounce British nationality as many member-state regulations could exclusively reserve dual nationality for EU-member states. Therefore, those that want to maintain their European citizenship rights will have to give up their British citizenship, a heart-breaking and impossible prospect for many. While not obtaining a new passport bears perhaps a low risk of expulsion, the high risk comes in the loss of European citizenship rights such as freedom of movement or recognition of qualifications.
It’s a telling spectacle at 8am in the morning, seeing British migrants joining long queues outside immigration offices here in Berlin to secure some form of certainty in these times of turmoil. Some British citizens in Germany feel they have a heightened sense of empathy, too. Rebecca, who has spent many hours in such queues says: “I relate so much more personally and politically to the migrant experience than I did before.” No doubt for those that are eligible, German or EU citizenship gives the best insurance. And it’s perhaps further telling that naturalisation numbers of EU-27 citizens in the UK (who face the prospect of similar loss of citizenship rights) have risen considerably less, albeit from higher absolute numbers.
Whatever the next months may bring, we are no doubt witnessing a significant social phenomenon whose implications are yet to be fully understood. While the legal consequences of Brexit remain so uncertain, people like Temi, Andreas, and Rebecca – along with more than 5 million other EU or UK migrants on both sides of the channel – are making serious sacrifices and taking often big risks to do whatever they can to mitigate the pending impact of Brexit on their lives. Or, in the words of Martin who has just left Reading with wife and two kids to being now unemployed in Hamburg: “If it wasn’t for the Brexit vote, we’d have definitely stayed in the UK.”
 Oxford in Berlin is a University of Oxford subsidiary company and part of the Oxford-Berlin Research Partnership that with partners, such as the WZB, aims to foster excellent and highly innovative, interdisciplinary academic collaboration that crosses institutional as well as national boundaries.
Daniel Auer: WZB Berlin Social Science Center, firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel Tetlow: Oxford in Berlin, email@example.com