A study of EU citizens living in the UK has revealed the “open wound” left by Brexit, with respondents saying the decision to leave the bloc had left them feeling betrayed, insecure and distrustful towards the country that most nonetheless still call home.
The survey of EU nationals from 22 countries, who had mostly been in Britain for more than five years and stayed since Brexit, showed “a profound and lasting impact on the lives and sense of identity and belonging of EU citizens in the UK”, the authors said.
“The public narrative may suggest that Brexit is done and dusted, and everyone has moved on,” said the report’s main author, Prof Nando Sigona of the University of Birmingham. “But for EU citizens, Brexit remains an open wound.”
The study, EU Citizens in the UK after Brexit, showed that rebuilding trust in British institutions and politicians would be challenging when “the ramifications of Brexit still have such profound consequences” on EU citizens’ lives, Sigona said.
Respondents said Brexit had significantly affected their view of Britain. While 72% still felt some emotional attachment to the UK, 89% said their opinion of the country had changed – 68.6% by “a great deal” or “a lot” – since the 2016 referendum.
Asked to provide three words summing up what Britain means to them, many nevertheless offered terms such as “home” and “love”, reflecting the residual strength of EU nationals’ ties to the country they had made home, the report said.
However, positive responses were outweighed by words such as “disappointment”, “betrayed”, “sadness”, “frustration”, “anger”, “unwelcome” and “disgusted”. Free-text responses to the survey echoed the most negative sentiment.
“I was at home here,” said a Dutch man, 43. “Since the referendum … people still ask me where I come from and when I go home, but those questions have lost their innocence.” Another Dutch man, 40, said: “I moved here as part of the same philosophy; now feel that common idea is gone and I feel like an immigrant.”
Others said Brexit had changed their view of their country of origin: “I feel more German and more attached to Germany since 2016,” said a 45-year-old German woman in the UK.
Many of the 364 respondents contrasted their view of their country of origin with their perception of post-Brexit Britain. “Hope my country of origin will never become as unfair and xenophobic as the UK is now,” said a French woman, aged 62.
Strikingly, Brexit also appears to have proved “a real trigger for pro-EU sentiment”, Sigona said, with more than 90% of respondents saying that since Brexit they felt at least moderately attached to the bloc. Words offered in support of that sentiment included “belonging”, “peace”, “freedom”, “unity” and “movement”.
A 52-year-old French woman who had returned to France said she “took the EU for granted before Brexit” but was “now aware of how precious it is, even if not perfect”. A 44-year-old Italian woman said she “never used to pay much attention to what the EU stood for or what it did” but now “defends it from the lies peddled in the press”.
Unsurprisingly, the 96-question survey – carried out between December 2021 and January 2022, a year after the end of the transition period – found most of the settled EU citizens in the UK, often part of multi-generational households, planned to stay. More than half had permanent legal status and more than 30% had dual nationality.
Of the about 30% who had changed countries since the referendum, the main reasons cited were family or partner (25%), Brexit (17%), work (16%), and study (14%) – with “Brexit” covering a multitude of emotional, political and practical considerations.
Among respondents in the UK, however, even if a majority had settled status or UK citizenship, immigration status and residency was an overriding concern, with the different status of various family members – including parents or grandparents in the EU – affecting family relations and shaping future plans.
There was also widespread concern that settled status is digital-only, with no paper proof. “Given the lack of trust in UK immigration authorities, a lot of people still don’t feel secure,” Sigona said. “They are also worried about not being able, for example, to care for relatives outside the UK.”
A 64-year-old French-born woman in the UK for more than 40 years said: “I can barely express how hurt I am. I came to the UK in 1979 and worked in the NHS. I have felt betrayed, unheard, uncared for. I started to suffer from anxieties. I decided to apply for British citizenship, not because I wanted to be British, but so I could sleep at night again. When I got my British passport, I spat on it.”