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Europe: The Final Countdown

What Will Happen to British Expats if the UK Leaves the EU?

Today, David Cameron announced that the referendum could be as soon as next May.
June 5, 2015, 7:45pm

Photo by Javier Izquierdo.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

"This is my home and the only home my daughter has ever known," says Kate Stables, who's lived in Paris for almost a decade. "We feel part of the community here, and it would be very sad indeed if we had to move back to the UK, especially now that the Conservative government is back in for another term."

Stables is one of 2 million British people currently living and working in Europe whose lives would be turned upside down if Britain voted to leave the EU—a vote that David Cameron said today could be held as early as next May. "It would affect me in the same way as anyone who is forced to leave their home and community," adds Stables, frontwoman of folk rock bad This Is the Kit. "Many people have to flee places for their lives, and that fact alone just makes this whole business seem all the more petty and pointless."


In a recent interview with the Guardian, Conservative MP and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve commented that expats like Stables could become "illegal immigrants" overnight if Britain exits the European Union. While Grieve might be overstating the issue slightly, there are serious and growing concerns over what might happen to these EU residents come 2016. The situation is made worse by the total lack of information currently available to help people like Stables prepare.

Peter Wilding is director of British Influence, a cross-party pressure group campaigning for Britain's continued membership of the EU. He's one of the only figures in British politics offering advice to the expat communities who face increasing uncertainty about what their lives might look like post-referendum. "It's not true that expatriates would instantly become 'illegal immigrants' in their countries of residence, but it is certainly true that their status would change overnight," he explains.

The question is what that new status will actually entail if the people of Britain bid farewell to Europe. A mind-boggling amount of British legislation is tied up with EU membership, and for anyone who's not well-versed (i.e., the majority of people) it's difficult to understand exactly how a "Brexit" is even possible in practical terms, let alone what might happen to Britons who have made another country their home.


"Under Article 50 of the Treaty of Rome, there's a two-year period in which a new settlement would have to be negotiated for a cessation country," Wilding tells me. "Though the impact is not immediate, there'll be fear, uncertainty and a strong possibility that residents in EU countries would face great barriers to having the free and unfettered right to reside."

Steve Anderson, owner of Seu Xerea Restaurant in Valencia, has lived in Spain since 1991. With English, Irish, Burmese, Chinese, and Mongolian heritage, he doesn't identify with any single country in particular, but believes wholeheartedly that a British departure from the EU would be a disastrous move. This perspective is echoed throughout his community. "All the UK nationals I know here are committed Europeans. It's hardly surprising given that we're living as expats in another EU state," he says. "There's a saying in Spanish that broadly translates as, 'It doesn't matter where you're born, it's where you live that counts.' I think that's true."

Given the Tory agenda of anti-immigration legislation—which has so far included restricting welfare access for EU migrants and new criminal offenses for illegal migrant workers—it seems safe to say that they're not on board with Spain's cosy perspective on the right to reside. As ideas about diminishing the rights of EU citizens in the UK gain more traction, the picture begins to look more and more grim for British expats, too. "Reciprocal legislation in the countries that we have chosen to live in seems an inevitability at this point," says Anderson.


Stables echoes the same concerns, reiterating the need for British expats to have access to information and guidance ahead of next year's referendum. "I don't know what sort of plan or arrangements would be made to minimize the damage of not letting British people move freely in Europe, but I think it'd be a huge shock to the system," she tells me.

A two million-strong group of British citizens living in the EU are being disregarded by Cameron's government on this life-altering issue. To put that number into perspective, this group of EU expats is bigger than the population of every British city apart from London. "It has to be said that this issue is not the government's priority," Wilding tells me. "I don't know of anything being done within government to address the concerns of or communicate with British expatriates in the EU ahead of the referendum."

With no precedent or procedure in place for withdrawal, these Britons are left with almost nowhere to turn. Online communities such as Votes for Expats and UK Citizens in the EU are offering platforms for discussion and support, and Wilding's pressure group British Influence are arranging for politicians to speak on phone-in campaigns with Radio Talk Europe to keep expats informed about what's going on.

READ ON VICE NEWS: Should We Stay or Should We Go? Britain to Decide on its European Future

If Britain does depart from the EU, young people could find themselves among the groups worst affected. Dr. Steve Priddy, Research Director at the London School of Business and Finance, tells me that "a small but significant and growing faction" of young Britons are seeking work or study abroad as a reaction to the perceived lack of opportunities for them in Britain.


Recent graduate Dee Roberts is a member of that faction. After studying languages at university, she moved to Italy last year to work as a freelance English teacher. "I left the UK because there weren't any jobs in my field," she says. "Now the government that's made the youth employment problem so much worse is going to make me move back, then demonize me when I end up on JSA? It's just ridiculous."

Wilding isn't surprised to hear sentiments like this from young British expats; he sees it as a natural reaction given the global nature of society today. "I don't think young people see it as anything other than their fundamental right to study and work abroad," he says. "It's their country that's going to be inherited from the Nigel Farages of this world. Anything that impedes their rights to travel and work is obviously a real barrier to their freedom to live their lives as they see fit."

The potential impact is being felt among staff in the academic community, too. "Several of my faculty colleagues teaching in Grenoble are UK expats with families living in France. Dismay might be a good summing up of their general feelings," Priddy says. The consequences of a vote to leave the EU could see lecturers and researchers from across EU member states subjected to lengthy visa processes and other barriers to continuing their work. In the most extreme scenario, they may be forced to return to the UK, where academic jobs are already scarce.

There's a general hope that the referendum outcome will make speculation over what happens next redundant, but there's a tangible sense of helplessness among expats if Britain does opt out. "When the topic comes up, the general feeling is that it would be pretty bonkers if the UK were to leave Europe," Stables says. "What are the actual arguments for leaving the EU anyway? I've not heard anything convincing enough to justify it, but maybe I'm not reading the right papers."

In terms of mitigating the negative aftermath of Britain's potential exit from the EU, Priddy doesn't even want to think about it, and sees the potential repercussions reaching much further than those affected in the immediate future. "As a Briton and as an academic, departure from the EU would just be too depressing an outcome to consider," he tells me. "In straightforward terms, this so-called 'Brexit' from the EU is not something I would want to leave as a legacy for my son's generation."

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