Brexodus has begun. We EU nationals know staying on is too big a gamble


Who would sacrifice EU citizenship for life in a country we now know could turn on us at any moment? It makes sense to get ahead of the returning herd

‘Do not expect TV footage of hordes of well-heeled EU nationals making for the Channel tunnel.’ Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday 29 June 2017 09.00 BST Last modified on Thursday 29 June 2017 09.01 BST

It will not happen in spectacular ways, so do not expect TV footage of hordes of well-heeled EU nationals making for Heathrow airport or the Channel tunnel. Rather it will be a steady, inexorable drip-feed. It has already started and as the true implications of Brexit sink in the number will swell. Call it the Brexodus: well-educated EU nationals with the global job market at their feet turning their back on a country they had thought of as a good and safe place to make their homes.

A Deloitte study, published this week, reveals that nearly half of all highly skilled EU workers could leave the UK within five years. This may have been news to many Britons, but not to the 3 million EU nationals in this country. Some of us have already left and others are actively making plans. Many know at least one EU national or family who have left already. Everybody is considering their options – and for good reason.

It is not just that our interests were all but ignored during the referendum campaign last year. After all, this was true of the interests of the Irish, the Northern Irish, the Scots and the Gibraltarians too. It is also not just that EU nationals have morphed from afterthought to “bargaining chips” to be traded in the negotiations with the EU for, say, a better fishing quota. We knew where we stood when Theresa May’s government rushed to provide secret assurances to foreign carmakers based in the UK but left us hanging.

Most EU nationals have also become used – even immune – to the English superiority complex vis-a-vis Europe, and to the periodical insults by leading politicians and media figures. The hate crimes and subtle discrimination genuinely hurt but they are extremely rare and, in themselves, are insufficient reason to upend one’s life.

What drives highly educated Europeans away from Britain is that, once outside the EU, this country will simply be a far less attractive proposition. Under a so-called soft Brexit things would still be manageable, as Britain would merely lose its political influence in Brussels while keeping all existing arrangements in place. However, the latest election campaign has made abundantly clear that both the Labour party and the Conservatives are going straight ahead with a hard Brexit.

And so more and more well-educated EU nationals are realising they have chosen the wrong country in which to build a life. Never mind the “fair and serious” offer that Theresa May made this week to settle our status. The real problem with the offer is not that it is unfair but that it cannot logically be fair. If EU nationals kept all their rights post-Brexit they would end up with more rights than the local population, and find themselves under protection of a foreign court – first-class citizens in a country not their own. The alternative to this is Theresa May’s offer, which effectively means that unless they manage to acquire British citizenship, EU nationals become second-rate citizens in Britain.

That is what this country voted for in the election last month, even if virtually nobody seems to have realised it. EU nationals in the UK have first-hand experience of the British government and state. We have seen that this country is not even able to run its trains properly or sort out fire safety. We understand that our rights in Theresa May’s offer could be revoked post-Brexit at any time, and we have seen the pressure that the xenophobic and hysterically Europhobe tabloid press can bring to bear on politicians (“traitors”) and judges (“enemies of the people”).

Highly educated EU nationals know that they have highly sought-after skills – many of us are not in British jobs taken by Europeans but in European jobs done in Britain. Why not take that job with us back to the EU? And why risk investing in a country that could turn on you at any moment? This question is even more urgent for those from Austria, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Estonia or Lithuania: countries that make it very difficult for their citizens to acquire a second nationality.

Do we really want to sacrifice our EU citizenship for a life in Britain? For EU parents of children in primary school, this is also a huge gamble. Do we stay here, meaning that our kids will probably not master our original language sufficiently to go to university in our home country? But what if, in the end, our application is rejected, and we are deported back to our home country with children whose first language is English?

Then there are the mixed-nationality couples with kids. There are the divorced mixed couples, some of them remarried with yet other nationals, producing an even more intricate tapestry of overlapping and conflicting national jurisdictions. This is one reason for the EU’s enduring popularity, particularly in border regions: many Europeans have far too interesting lives and lineages to neatly fit the legal requirements of one nation state.

Think also of those EU nationals with frail parents. Will they be able to bring them over? Western European EU nationals need to consider that the arrangements for care in Britain are vastly inferior to those in their countries of origin. And so on.

Indeed, once you realise, as an EU citizen, that there is going to be a Brexodus of fellow nationals back to your home country, it makes sense to get ahead of the herd and secure a job before the market is flooded by returning immigrants with your specific set of skills. This will also allow you to get the current exchange rate for your saved-up pounds rather than the one in a few years’ time, when the currency market has finally priced in the full extent of the economic damage caused by whatever shape Brexit ultimately takes.

All’s well that ends well, Britons like to say. That does not apply here. People, as well as businesses and corporations, need to plan ahead; and for this, they require certainty. Many EU nationals simply cannot afford to wait and see whether it behoves the British people to treat us well.