Source: US News and World Report, 21 March 2019
Brexit’s uncertainty is pushing many Europeans to leave the U.K., and causing British citizens abroad to reconsider whether to return home.
UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS — Joris Zwart lived in England for 20 years before he decided last year to move his family back to his native Netherlands. The ongoing uncertainty caused by Brexit and the birth of his son had called into question whether their future remained in the United Kingdom.
“We were fairly settled in the U.K. with good jobs and salaries that would be hard to match abroad,” Zwart says. “We had bought a bigger house and English is the one language we all speak, so it was not an easy decision to make. But once we saw the (2016) referendum outcome was leave, we knew it was time to seriously consider our options.”
Zwart isn’t alone.
For European Union nationals living in the United Kingdom and for British citizens living in the rest of the EU, the final pre-Brexit days are ambiguous times. A lack of guarantees about working rights and residential status are pushing many people to pre-emptively move out of the United Kingdom – a Brexit-induced exodus, or “Brexodus.”
A report from the multinational Deloitte in 2017 warned that nearly half of all highly skilled EU workers could leave Britain before 2022. The U.K. Office for National Statistics reported that the number of EU nationals in employment in Britain last year had fallen by the biggest number in more than 20 years.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries like the Netherlands are experiencing the impact of the exodus from the U.K. The number of Dutch nationals moving to the U.K. is at its lowest point since 2009. Although there are still slightly more Dutch annually leaving for Britain than returning, the gap is rapidly narrowing.
According to figures from CBS, the Dutch national bureau of statistics, net migration by Dutch nationals to the U.K. has fallen by 56 percent between 2015 and 2017 (the 2015 British general election led to the Brexit referendum in 2016). Statistics for 2018 are yet to be released, but experts predict they may be the lowest yet.
Zwart says the vote had made him feel “less at home” in Britain. “We felt the atmosphere in the country becoming more unpleasant and polarized,” he says. “Before we left, friends in the Netherlands warned me: ‘Are you sure you want to give up all you built up there; we have our issues here, too.’ But after seeing the sheer incompetence of British politicians in recent months, they agree that we made the right decision.”
Zwart managed to get a transfer to the Netherlands with the U.S. company he worked for in London and his partner Sandrine was able to carry her job back to the Netherlands, too. The couple have since bought a house in the southern province of Noord-Brabant, where their son has settled into a Dutch nursery. “In the U.K. we saw our European friends with older kids finding it harder to leave. With our son still to start school, we were glad to be able to get out while we could.”
Brexit’s impact on the mass movement of financial services company assets and staff is well-documented, but the impact on individuals is less obvious. Yet every EU national in Britain and Brit in the EU feels the consequences of the looming departure. They hear of friends and relatives planning to leave; they face potential cuts to EU-funded work or charity projects or have practical questions, such as not knowing if their driving license is valid in their host country next month.
Brexit has also complicated the life of 24-year old student Detmer Kremer, who moved from the U.S. to the U.K. last year. The Dutchman had applied for a graduate course at University College London after living in Singapore and America. “Of course I knew the Brexit vote had happened, but I didn’t feel the consequences of it until I started living in London,” he says.
When Kremer initially chose London for his studies, he says he intended to stay and try to get a job with one of the many human rights organizations in the city. But the past six months have made him reconsider: “Brexit has shown a very ugly side of the U.K.: The country has such big problems, like inequality, and all politicians have been doing is talking Brexit. I have a friend here who is from Belfast (Northern Ireland) and feels completely ignored by her own politicians, who do not seem to care about the Irish border situation, either. Many people feel not heard. It is a fiasco on all levels.”
Regardless of the final outcome of Brexit, Kremer says the vote feels like a personal rejection. “I’m 24. All I know is a borderless Europe. I feel European and have missed that when I lived on other continents. In the U.S., where it is so much harder and farther to visit other countries, I realized how valuable Europe’s open borders really are. It makes us all part of a bigger community. Leave voters chose to step away from that community, but I don’t want to step away from it at all.”
Kremer decided in February that he will not stay in London once he finishes his course this summer, but will apply for jobs in other EU countries. “I don’t even mind where in Europe – I just want to stay a part of the European community.”
While Brexodus reports have mostly focused on EU nationals leaving Britain, there is also the lesser-known story of British citizens leaving the U.K. or not returning home from another EU country. While there are no residence permit guarantees for Brits in a post-Brexit Europe, for some the prospect of living outside the EU is too hard to bear.
According to the Dutch CBS, the number of Brits settling into the Netherlands is on the rise. Anne-Marie Stead moved from London to the Dutch city of Leiden two years ago. Together with her partner, she works in the European aerospace industry, where some projects rely on EU funding. This summer the couple expect their first child.
“I watch the BBC news every morning and it is like a bad soap opera,” she says. “It makes me angry to hear them say this is ‘the will of the British people’ when the vote was nearly 50-50.” When she left for the Netherlands, she was unsure whether she would return to Britain. But the uncertainties of Brexit have made her feel the Netherlands will be a more stable option for the young family in the long term.
Their Dutch residency and employment status are still non-guaranteed. “We have permanent contracts but no one knows if we can keep those,” Stead says. “Work says they will try and sponsor us so we can all have visas but no one knows yet how that would work.”
Stead says she and her family can remain in the Netherlands through the U.K.’s transition out of the EU and apply for Dutch residency after five years.
“But we haven’t been here for five years yet and our baby won’t automatically get Dutch citizenship by birth. My grandma had Irish parents so I looked into Irish citizenship, too, but that didn’t work as she was born in the U.K. “So for now, we are in limbo. We will have the baby in the Netherlands and hope we can stay.”