Article 50 – the formal mechanism for quitting the EU – has been widely discussed since the people of the UK voted narrowly in favour of ending its decades-long membership of the European institution last year. EU Council President Donald Tusk responded to May’s official notification of divorce at a Brussels press conference on March 29 with the words: “We already miss you.”
Among those looking on during last week’s events were some three million EU nationals who currently call the UK home. Their long-term status and prospects were immediately cast into doubt when the June 23, 2016 referendum on remaining in the EU saw the “leave” majorities in England and Wales negate the “remain” majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Today, as two years of negotiations lie ahead, the country’s EU residents are facing an uncertain time as questions surrounding their future right to live in the UK remain unresolved.
“Because you’re dealing with people’s lives, there’s certainly an ethical and moral side to this issue,” said academic Thomas Lundberg, of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.
“But there are also issues for businesses here – that they make sure they get to keep the employees they have. We don’t want to see people being shipped out – that would have a detrimental impact on a UK economy that is already facing a problem with Brexit as it is.”
According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, Polish nationals – at some 850,000 – make up the largest EU contingent in the UK. They lead Irish citizens who, at around 330,000, are the second largest EU group. Portuguese and Romanian nationals come in equal third, with some 175,000 from each nation currently living in Britain.
A great many Britons, “remainers” especially, believe EU citizens have made a valuable contribution to life in Britain – thriving in roles across its ever-beleaguered National Health Service (NHS) and in businesses up and down the land.
The widely reported British scepticism over EU immigration, particularly among “leave” voters, has, however, propelled many EU nationals to consider their futures in the country, even if guarantees of remaining in the UK can be agreed during forthcoming Brexit talks.
Nerea Gonzalez is a 27-year-old Spaniard currently living in Bristol, in England’s southwest. She told Al Jazeera that her dismay at Brexit has changed little since last year’s referendum result.
“I felt really sad and really disappointed after the Brexit vote,” said Gonzalez, who works as an architect.
“Nobody around us could believe the result – including all my English friends: I really don’t know anyone who voted to leave, but it must be because I live around people who think like me.”
The Basque Country native said that she was always intending to return to her home nation at some point in the future, but “when Brexit happened, it made me think about leaving earlier than I thought”.
Christian Allard, a French national and one-time member of the Scottish parliament for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), said he believed that the Brexit vote had been coming for some time. Based in Aberdeen, in Scotland’s northeast, Allard told Al Jazeera that the rise of British “intolerance towards foreigners and the rise of thinking that everything that comes out of the EU is wrong” provided the basis for the UK’s withdrawal.
“When I came to Britain 30 years ago, it was a different Britain, it was a welcoming Britain,” said the 53-year-old, who is running for an SNP council seat in Aberdeen in May’s Scottish council elections. “The United Kingdom nowadays is a different place altogether and I’ve met a lot of EU citizens and foreigners who feel the same.”
Allard, having spent his three decades in the UK living in Scotland, which voted by 62 percent to 38 percent to remain in the EU, has given little – if any – thought to returning to France because of the Brexit vote. As a father and grandfather, Allard said he had built a life in the UK – in Scotland particularly – and scoffs at the notion of abandoning his friends and family.
“To go back to what?” ponders Allard at the idea of returning to France. “I left 30 years ago as a young man, so it doesn’t make sense.”
The uncertainty experienced by EU nationals in the UK – as they weigh up their options and wait for their futures in Britain to be resolved during Brexit talks between London and Brussels – is mirrored by many of the 1.2 million British citizens currently living across the EU.
Gareth Warner is a 40-year-old married father-of-one living in the Spanish capital, Madrid. For him, the Brexit vote “threw a sense of uncertainty in the air – not just for life in Spain, but for life in another EU country, potentially, in the future”.
“I don’t think it’s having any impact on our lives, yet,” added the English teacher to Al Jazeera. “There could be a flood of implications coming our way in the next year or two. Everyone has discussed it, but conversations have been limited as we know so little so far. As things become clearer, or not, then we’ll have more to talk about.”
Reports that many EU citizens in the UK have been busy tackling an 85-page application form in order to gain permanent residency have been widespread. Where, for decades, simply being an EU citizen was enough to guarantee the right to live and work in the UK, those EU nationals who have always relied on their Polish, French or Spanish passports, for example, are today being forced to think again.
But a lifeline, in the form of the will of political leaders both in the UK and in the EU to come to some form of reciprocal agreement, appears to exist.
Yet, for many EU citizens, a record number of whom left the NHS last year prompting fears of a Brexit staffing crisis, life in the UK took a permanent turn for the worse following the vote to quit the EU.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic … but I’ve been talking to my friends since Brexit happened about how I don’t feel comfortable any more,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve been told a few times, in a pub or somewhere else, ‘Speak English’, when I’ve just been with my Spanish friends – and it’s made me feel really uncomfortable.”