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What could a Brexit mean to British and European expats?

Written by Lisa van der Steen on 22 March 2016

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With the June 23rd now set as the date of the EU referendum, Britain is one step closer to leaving the European Union. Whilst politicians are gearing up for their "remain" or "leave" campaigns, the question remains what a renegotiated position in or outside of the EU will entail. What would a Brexit mean to European expats in the UK and what are the consequences for those British expats abroad?

Let’s take a look at some of the potential outcomes of the referendum and what their impact would be on British and other EU expats.

Free movement

One of the founding principles of the European Union is the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. Currently, any EU citizen can move to and remain in another EU country for up to three months. After this period, they have the right to stay in the country of choice if they are employed, self-employed, self-sufficient, seeking for a job or studying in the new country of residence.

According to a recent report by the UK government, there are about 1.2 million British migrants living in other EU countries, compared to approximately 3 million EU migrants living in the UK.

If Britain decides to leave the EU, expats who are already living in the UK are likely to be given indefinite leave to remain. However, a Brexit could put restrictions on getting a work permit, studying, setting up a business or bringing family members over from other EU states.

In case Britain votes against remaining in the EU, it’s needed to negotiate a new trading pact with the other EU member states. If, like Norway, Britain remains within the single market and retains its membership of the European Economic Area, UK citizens would retain the right to work in the EU and vice versa.

Some Brexit supporters are against this option, as Britain would have no say over EU policies, despite still being dependent on them. It also puts no immediate halt to immigration. Parties like UKIP are therefore in favour of introducing a work permit system. This means that those who are planning to stay abroad for a longer time would have to apply for a visa and present proof of employment when wanting to move to another European country. Students would have to pay full international tuition fees and would lose their access to student loans, whilst Britons abroad would also have to adhere to other countries’ integration rules. This might mean they have to be able to speak the language before they can settle there permanently.

Other Eurosceptics have suggested to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the EU like Switzerland and Turkey have done, or to fall back onto the World Trade Organisation. High trading tariffs, bureaucracy and a restricted right to travel would have to be taken into account and perhaps be renegotiated if Britain opts for alternatives like these.

Rights and benefits

In general, EU migrants are currently entitled to many of the same rights and benefits as British citizens and vice versa. EU nationals in the UK have the right to free health care, pension credit and housing benefit. Only for income-based jobseeker’s allowance, EU migrants need to wait three months and do a residency test before they can apply. For British citizenship applications, one needs to have lived in the UK for at least 5 years and apply for a permanent residence card first.

In February, David Cameron secured a deal with the European Union for a new settlement for Britain in Europe. For expats, the most important outcomes of the new settlement are the following:

  • There will be more restrictions on free movement for non-EU nationals who marry someone from the EU.
  • Migrant workers whose children are still resident in their country of origin will receive child benefit that matches the equivalent rate in their home country. This means that a lot of EU migrants in the UK will receive less child benefit than the British themselves.
  • In case there’s an exceptionally high level of migration to the UK, in-work benefits might be cut down for foreign nationals for their first four years in Britain. This brake on benefits must be lifted after seven years.

If Britain leaves the EU, reciprocal healthcare arrangements can be jeopardised for UK and EU nationals. It could mean that expats will lose their entitlement to their home country’s benefits and that their state pensions will be frozen. It might also be harder to open up a bank account abroad or to sign up for a phone contract.

However, until new arrangements are made, it’s still unclear what the true impact will be on expats. It is unlikely that expats will be forced to leave the country they’re currently residing in, but it might impose more restrictions on moving around freely and claiming benefits.  

If you’re an expat yourself or it’s a matter close to your heart, let us know what you think in our British expat voting behaviour survey.   

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