Discussions around whether the UK should or shouldn’t leave the European Union are once again in the news. British Prime Minister David Cameron has reportedly been in negotiation with EU officials, and other politicians and officials from the UK and the EU have been sharing their concerns and opinions.There has been serious talk about holding a referendum in the UK in order to answer the question of whether the UK should stay or leave, and it currently looks likely that this will take place in June or September of this year.
The outcome of the referendum will of course affect a number of people in various fields in a multitude of ways, and one group that will be affected and that is particularly concerned is expats, both from the UK and from the other countries in the EU. Visas, travel, work, and many more things are at stake for these expats, and could become easier or more difficult, depending on the outcome of the referendum. It’s also a more complex issue than a simple yes or no. Whichever way the vote goes, the specifics are important. The situation could develop in several different directions. In order to get some clarity, we decided to take a look at how things could play out, and what it could mean both for British expats who are living or planning to live in other countries of the EU and for expats from other EU countries who are living or planning to live in the UK. Of course, things are very much in a state of flux, and this is mostly conjecture – there’s not much certainty about what could happen in the long run.
Political opinion within the UK
Right now, the UK is trying to negotiate several points with the EU authorities. These include a “red card” system that would allow it (and other member states too) to scrap or veto EU directives that they object to; a decrease in EU regulation of individual countries; restrictions on benefits to EU migrants within the UK; the ability to resist further political integration into the EU; and the option to not have to contribute to EU bailouts. The outcomes of some of these negotiations could affect expats, but the effects will be clearer and more specific as the negotiations proceed and individual outcomes are announced; an exit, on the other hand, would have wide-ranging effects, and the outcome is currently more unpredictable and worrisome.
The chances of an exit also depend on the outcome of these negotiations. If people are satisfied with the deal that emerges from the negotiations, they’re likely to vote in favor of remaining in the EU. Currently, the most important demand of the UK seems to be a four-year ban on benefits to migrant workers or else other measures that will help control immigration. In the absence of this, more people are likely to be in favor of leaving. Currently, opinion polls seem to say that the numbers of people in favor of leaving versus staying are fairly equal. The business community also seems almost evenly split, with the group in favor of staying having a slight majority. Big businesses mostly favor staying because of the ease with which products, funds, and people can currently be moved across the EU, a situation that could be severely disrupted by an exit. Smaller businesses tend to find a lot of the EU regulations and bureaucracy cumbersome, and would like something to be done about them, but are not necessarily in favor of leaving the EU.
The possible outcomes of the referendum
The UK exiting the EU would only be part of the story – the other part is what happens after the exit. There are several different situations that could emerge in the aftermath of an exit, and the following are the three main ones, at least in terms of what may or may not affect expats.
European Economic Area policy
The UK could exit the EU but remain part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which provides for free movement of goods, services and capital between the member states as well as three additional countries: Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. This could be similar to the agreement that currently exists between the EU and Switzerland, which is not part of either the EU or the EEA, but is part of the “single market”. Commentators seem to think that this is a highly unlikely outcome due to the fact that the free movement of people into the UK is one of the main objections put forth by people who are in favor of Britain leaving the EU. The objection is more about people from countries like Romania and Bulgaria, but an agreement that excludes such countries while extending free movement to others would be seen as discriminatory and is therefore unlikely to come through.
Agreements between the UK and individual member states of the EU
The UK could exit the EU and negotiate separate agreements for trade and movement of people between each of the individual member states of the EU. This would of course be a complex and difficult process. The terms of such agreements would need to be reciprocal on both sides; since the member states need to abide by the immigration policy of the EU, this policy would need to be the basis of any such agreements, and the UK would need to reciprocate. Obviously, this is an outcome that would not appeal to people who are unhappy with the current situation – the UK would essentially find itself outside the EU but largely bound to the same kind of immigration policy that it is currently objecting to. This outcome is therefore also seen as highly unlikely.
No agreements – only national immigration law
Commentators seem to think that this is the more likely outcome, and so it’s the one we’ll focus on. The UK could exit the EU and not negotiate agreements with the EU, the EEA, or individual member countries. This would mean that the UK would apply its own immigration laws to all EEA citizens and the EU countries would apply EU immigration law (as it applies to non-EU states) to UK citizens. This would of course be a major change from the way things currently work in terms of movement of people. Just as the UK currently does for countries outside the EU, it could have different processes and requirements for different countries within the EU, making it more difficult for citizens of some countries than for others to come to the UK. Such discrimination is likely to result in retaliation by the EU, making it more difficult for UK citizens to travel or live in any of the EU nations. One possible outcome that exists within this one is that there could be an agreement to protect people who moved from one country to another before the UK’s exit. Only people moving after the exit would be subject to UK immigration law or EU immigration law.
The impact on British nationals living as expats in other EU states
In most discussion over UK leaving or remaining with the EU, a lot of the focus, at least within the UK itself, is on people from other countries who live within the UK. There are a reported 2.3 million people in the UK who are citizens of other EU countries. However, reports show that roughly the same number of UK citizens are also living in other EU countries. If the UK exits the EU, huge numbers of British expats will also be affected.
Currently, UK nationals who cross the border into the EU only need to deal with minimal checking that essentially focuses on verification of identity and nationality. If and when the UK leaves the EU, the EU’s free movement laws will no longer apply to citizens of the UK, which means that they will need to go through similar checks to all other non-EU citizens. Visa requirements would also likely kick in. It is possible that visas for UK citizens would be waived, at least for short-term visits, as often happens for citizens of wealthy countries. However, this would need to be reciprocated – as we said earlier, a major problem the UK has right now is that it wants to restrict entry into the UK for people from countries like Romania. If the UK insists on such restrictions after it leaves the EU, by imposing strict visa requirements on certain countries, it could face the imposition of similar visa requirements on UK citizens by the EU.
Of course it’s not only travel, but living in the EU that would also become a lot more complicated for British expats. UK citizens living in EU countries for more than five years would be able to apply for long-term resident status, but there would be more conditions and fewer benefits than there are for EU citizens. These include conditions relating to integration rules, such as being able to speak the local language. For those who don’t qualify as long-term residents, quotas and preference rules would apply.
Relocating from one EU country to another would also be more difficult, as expats would need to either get a Blue Card or an intra-corporate transfer in the case of highly skilled professionals. National laws that favor locals and restrict non-EU citizens would make things even more difficult for less skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and seasonal workers would only be able to stay for a limited, clearly defined period. British citizens living in the EU as pensioners would have their own troubles, as they would no longer have the guarantee of receipt and upgrading of their pensions.
Expat families would also find it difficult to live in EU countries after a UK exit. Family reunion rules are stricter for non-EU countries, and these would apply to UK citizens too, which could mean the application of the integration rules we mentioned earlier, as well as long waiting periods. In cases where a spouse or other family member who is a UK citizen wants to join an EU citizen in the latter’s home country, the immigration laws of the home country would apply, which could be extremely restrictive.
The impact on EU nationals living as expats in the UK
Visa requirements for EU nationals coming to the UK would be similar to what we described earlier, and as we said, the UK may impose stricter visa restrictions on some countries than on others. In cases where visa requirements do exist, they would make travel to the UK much more difficult than it currently is. Being able to come to the UK would depend upon meeting a number of requirements, and in addition, the process of application would be expensive, with a high risk of refusal, and with limited appeal rights in cases of refusal. EU citizens coming to the UK for work would need to be able to show a sponsor in almost all cases, like citizens from other countries. Most would also need to meet other requirements, such as a minimum salary or an occupation that is facing shortages within the UK, or entrepreneurs able to show sufficient capital.
For EU expats already living in the UK, those who have permanent resident status should be in a relatively good situation. However, if permanent resident status is changed to “indefinite leave to remain”, the situation could be more precarious, with fewer benefits and a higher risk of deportation. Expats who don’t qualify for permanent resident status could technically also face deportation, but commentators seem to think that this is highly unlikely. Expats who are employed would almost certainly be allowed to remain within the UK and pursue permanent resident status or indefinite leave in due course, although this is likely to be more difficult and less secure than it currently is under EU law. EU citizens who are unemployed, on the other hand, or otherwise not exercising their Treaty rights, are likely to face deportation. Most recently, the UK also set a minimum yearly income of 35,000 British pounds for skilled workers from outside the EU, failing which these workers will need to leave the country. If the UK leaves the EU, this requirement could apply to skilled workers from EU countries as well.
An exit from the EU would also make it difficult for EU citizens to join their family members in the UK. Laws that currently apply to non-EU countries would then also apply to EU countries, making it almost impossible for parents and other dependent relatives to join their adult children, and also imposing a lot of restrictions on spouses, partners, and minor children coming to the UK. For example, proof of accommodation and adequate finances would be necessary in most cases, and for spouses and partners, you would also need proof that the relationship is genuine and there is an intention to live together.