Forced to become British: How Brexit created a new European diaspora

Kirsten Whitehouse was watching the news on TV in the early hours of the morning when the hard, cold fact that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union properly sank in. As the day after the Brexit referendum dawned on June 24, 2016, Whitehouse, 48, says she was “flabbergasted” by the result. Sitting, incredulous, in her home in St Albans, an affluent town just north of London, questions about her future began to flood her mind.

“I had to provide for my children! What if I wasn’t allowed to work in the UK anymore? I was so upset,” says Whitehouse, who was born and raised in Germany before moving to the UK as a young woman.

“The news of the Brexit vote hit me so hard. We had all absolutely thought it was impossible that it would happen.”

Whitehouse was just one of 3.5 million Europeans who had made the UK their home, comfortable in the belief that freedom of movement within the EU made this a safe option. Now, overnight, they faced uncertainty about their future. Would they even be able to continue living in the UK? What about their jobs, their children at school?

They weren’t the only ones blind-sided by the referendum result. It appeared the government was completely unprepared for it as well.

“There was so much confusion. The government didn’t make anything clear at all. I was really scared,” Whitehouse says. “It took me years to truly understand the implications.”

Now, seven years later, she is one of many EU citizens who have tried to forge closer legal bonds with the UK than they had in 2016 – taking steps to register for settlement in the country or even naturalise as full British citizens. Yet many say they feel more vulnerable than they did before Brexit. In Whitehouse’s case, she has opted to apply for full British citizenship to safeguard her rights, but she feels she has been forced to do this in a state of anxiety, rather than one of happiness about becoming a British citizen.

Whitehouse first came to the UK in 1994 to work as a nanny and moved for good two years later after finishing her education. “I fell in love with life in the UK,” she says. She went on to have a career in marketing and events organisation, not to mention getting married and having a family. Her two boys, Richard and Leo, are 17 and 19.

Whitehouse now runs her own business, Wolf Approach Fitness. “I have always loved how the UK offers [lots of support] to follow your heart and set up a business,” she says. “It’s one of the many reasons I have always considered the UK my true home while also very much considering myself a European citizen.”

She never thought it necessary to become a British citizen – why bother? Her generation had only ever known freedom of movement within Europe, a central tenet of the EU that meant she could move to the UK without a visa and almost immediately enjoy close to the same rights as Britons.

But when the vote for Brexit came, all of that was up in the air.

As well as applying for citizenship for herself, Whitehouse also secured German citizenship for her British-born sons to preserve their European rights in case they all needed to relocate because of her uncertain status in the UK.

But when she received her UK citizenship, the feeling was bittersweet. Instead of it feeling like a celebration of her connection to the UK, she says it was a decision made at the end of a gun: “I felt like I had absolutely no choice. My life was hanging in the balance.”

Demonstration in support of guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit
A demonstration in support of guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit is held in Parliament Square during a House of Commons session in London on March 13, 2017 [File: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images]

After Brexit, years of uncertainty

Despite a huge, well-publicised campaign to leave the EU in the lead-up to the referendum in 2016, many in the UK – like Whitehouse – thought it could never happen. The result came as a shock to many.

Without information about what would happen next, fear, frustration and anger had time to brew. Hate crimes rose to a record high in the months after the referendum with Eastern Europeans targeted in particular.

People marched in the streets to protest the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. Britons and Europeans alike expressed anger and fear about what Brexit had taken from them. Since Brexit, more Europeans have left the UK than have arrived.

Instead of citizenship being a celebration of belonging, many Europeans have naturalised in a state of resentment

After three long years of uncertainty, the UK finally launched the EU Settlement Scheme in 2019, offering a simplified path to permanent residency for Europeans who had lived in the UK for at least five years and pre-settled status for those who’d arrived more recently.

Since then, the Home Office has received 6 million applications. About 17 percent of these are duplicates from people who were initially rejected as well as those moving from pre-settled to settled status once they meet the five-year threshold.

Under the Settlement Scheme, Europeans receive nearly the same rights they had before Brexit. The main difference now is that if they leave the UK for five years, they will have to start over as immigrants if they wish to return.

For many, the scheme is not enough to feel secure. After all, critics say, the rules have changed once, so what’s to prevent them from changing again? As a result, since Brexit, 337,000 EU citizens have gone further and become British citizens. Also called naturalisation, this is the only way to gain full, irrefutable rights. But for many who have gone down this route, their new nationality has come with a side of some very complicated feelings.

Naturalisation – a ‘lesser’ state of inclusion?

The traditional view of naturalisation, the process by which an immigrant becomes a full citizen, is that it’s the final step in the journey to integration. “But in the case of Brexit and Europeans in the UK, the opposite happened,” says Nando Sigona, co-lead of the Rebordering Britain & Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN) research project. “People hadn’t felt the need to naturalise because they felt safe and comfortable as Europeans in Britain. Now they were forced to naturalise to defend themselves.”

The act of naturalisation, therefore, made people feel less “British” – or at least less “included” in the UK – rather than more.

Instead of citizenship being a celebration of belonging, many Europeans have naturalised in a state of resentment and have felt even like they’re doing it under duress. “[Our interviews with Europeans] have found a complete lack of trust in the British state,” Sigona says.

This distrust is often directed towards the Settlement Scheme – new rights created by the same government that took the old ones away. Because history may plausibly repeat itself, the only guarantee is citizenship. Sigona says he recommends citizenship to anyone who can get it. But he adds: “There’s still a strong sense of pain [associated with Brexit] and of this issue still being unresolved.”

Niels Rump, 55, came to the UK from Germany with his wife to take up a job offer as a business relations manager in the music industry in 1999. Their daughter, now 16, was born in the UK. Brexit prompted the family to naturalise in 2019 before the Settlement Scheme was rolled out. “We simply didn’t trust the government to honour their agreements with the EU,” Rump says.

But instead of making him feel more British, the experience strengthened Rump’s ties to Europe, he says.

Rump grew up in Germany in the aftermath of World War II and is keenly aware of how the EU was established in part to strengthen ties across a war-scarred continent.

“I’ve always felt more European than German,” he says. “The way the Brits cast that aside as being irrelevant makes me want to side with reason and say that actually, there’s a good [reason for] the EU. We shouldn’t throw that away.

“The way Britain has conducted the process of Brexit certainly damaged my view of this country.”

An East-West divide

Many Europeans who have lived through Brexit share this sentiment – especially those from Western Europe.

The EU began in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1951 by Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – all Western European countries. This was reformed into the European Economic Community in 1957 and the European Union in 1993.

By 1995, there were 15 members covering most of Western Europe, including the UK, which joined in 1973.

Britain Brexit EU Citizens
Pro-Europe protesters demonstrate against Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London on January 8, 2020. Millions of Europeans who had freely lived, worked and studied in the UK for decades were told to apply to stay under the Settlement Scheme. [File: Matt Dunham/AP]

Many citizens of other EU countries who lived in the UK never really considered themselves immigrants but rather European citizens moving freely, living out the dream of the great European family. “The referendum was a particular shock to them,” Sigona says. He adds that before Brexit, people from Western Europe hardly ever bothered to naturalise.

But people from the newer members of the EU – specifically the 11 Eastern European states that joined in the 2000s – never shared this sense of entitlement. “With Eastern and Central Europeans, it’s a different story, especially people from Poland [who] had been naturalising well before Brexit,” Sigona says.

Part of this difference may stem from Eastern Europeans’ experiences of growing up with less political stability, leaving them less trusting of rules and promises. But sections of the UK press have also repeatedly targeted immigrants from Eastern Europe since the 2000s for all sorts of societal ills – rising knife crime in London and unemployment, for example.

“They [Eastern Europeans] had already been faced with a hostile environment as migrants. They had seen the threats from the tabloids, the front pages about the ‘invasion’,” Sigona says.

Western Europeans did not have to deal with such hostility, and it created a divide. Some of the Western Europeans Al Jazeera spoke to even said that they had been scolded for worrying about Brexit. One was told: “It’s not you they want to get rid of. This is about the Eastern Europeans.”

Questioned at the border

No matter which country they come from, feeling compelled to naturalise or formally settle has damaged Europeans’ sense of belonging in the UK.

“This hostile immigration policy is having a big effect on the connection that people feel to their British identity,” says Andreea Dumitrache, interim co-CEO of The3million, a campaign group for EU citizens in Britain.

While settlement largely restores pre-Brexit rights, it has introduced the potential for friction at the border. This is arguably part of the government’s stated goal of creating a hostile environment for immigrants. People are indeed finding it stressful – and a reminder of their lesser status in the UK.

Instead of having a physical card or visa stamp, people in the UK under the Settlement Scheme are placed in a digital system, which is prone to glitches. “The digital system is not as reliable as it should be. It can cause delays at the border,” Dumitrache says.

Every time I travel back, they ask to see my UK visa, and I have to explain why I don’t have one. I’m just tired of it.

Settlement is also linked to passports, so if years later, people renew their European passports but have forgotten to update the UK Home Office, they may be flagged at the border and questioned until their status can be verified.

“That’s a scary situation, to be questioned whether you have the right to come home,” says Dumitrache, who moved to the UK from Romania in 2011. Settlement is enough for her, for now. “But in the future I may want to go through the naturalisation process, especially if I have children, as I wouldn’t want to be separated from my family [by having to use different queues at the border] when I come back home to the UK.”

Michaela Cameron, who left the Czech Republic in 2014 to study in Scotland, is currently in the process of applying for citizenship, mostly because of these kinds of border issues. She explains how, especially at smaller airports, she’s questioned by check-in staff who understandably don’t known the ins and outs of the UK system and have to call for a supervisor. “Every time I travel back from another country, they ask to see my UK visa, and I have to explain why I don’t have one [even though I have permanent residency]. I’m just tired of it.”

Cameron didn’t plan to stay in the UK after getting her degree but fell in love with Scotland: “I really felt like I was at home.” She says she feels very welcome in Scotland, where she can already vote in regional elections. “But in the last three years, I have started to feel singled out at a national level,” she says. “I have to think about the future.”

protest by EU citizens
A protest by hundreds of EU citizens in Parliament Square, London, on February 20, 2017 [File: Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images]

Welcome to the EU diaspora

To be sure, Europeans in Britain who have secured dual citizenship can move freely once again while Britons lost their EU rights after Brexit.

In a way, the EU-British dual citizens are pretty much back where they started – except now with a blue British passport in hand and a lot of mixed feelings about the country that they call home.

“The EU diaspora is a product of Brexit,” says Sigona, who has found a strengthened sense of European identity among the new dual citizens. “There’s clearly an interest in retaining their attachment to Europe.”

In the mandatory citizenship ceremony, newly naturalised Britons pledge allegiance to the monarch and swear their loyalty to the UK. For Whitehouse, it was a strange experience.

“I felt really emotional during the ceremony. It was a culmination of more than 25 years of my life. This country has been my home, and this made it official,” she says. “While I’m glad I have British citizenship now, I really resented having to do it. I still feel like the government was holding us hostage.”

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