Living in post-Brexit Britain

Brasil Observer - Dec 06 2016

(Leia em Português)


What opportunities, risks and threats will Brexit hold for Brazilians and other Latin Americans living in the UK?


By Damian Chalmers

What is it like to be a Brazilian living in post-Brexit Britain? Well, Brazilians, their relatives and those living with them will have a better sense of that than I. Undoubtedly, the language of intolerance, hostility and xenophobia has become louder and more accepted in the last five months.

Dismayingly, the idea of immigrants being a problem has become a new British common sense. It has resulted in many non-Brits losing the sense of home that they acquired from living many years in the United Kingdom.

Brexit has not yet happened, however. It will not do so until 2019 at the earliest. So what opportunities, risks and threats will it hold for Brazilians and other Latin Americans living in the UK?

It is best to get one chimera out of the way at the start. It might become easier for some Brazilians to migrate to the UK. Arguments were made during the referendum campaign that Brexit would make UK migration policy less Euro-centric. Alongside this, proposals were made to move the UK to a system in which points would be awarded to migrants for a number of skills and qualities and, if the individual notched up enough points, they could enter. Such systems are notionally blind to nationality. And Australia, with such a system, has higher migration than the UK.

Unfortunately, things are unlikely to turn out so rosy. The current position of the British government is that migration from non European Economic Area (EEA) states is still too high. Net migration in August was 327,000 with 190,000 non EU citizens and 180,000 EU citizens coming to the UK and 43,000 British citizens emigrating. The government’s position is to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. This would require migration to come down to somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000. Non EU migration would have to be somewhere between a third and a half of current levels. Any points system would go only to how places are allocated within this target.

There is a further bit of bad news for Latin Americans. Not for the first time, they are unlikely to be in a fair contest with Europe. Individuals seeking so-called high skills employment (ie doctors, academics, footballers) are more likely to be granted residence. There will, thus, be a limited pool of high skills employment for which people from around the world will compete. Newspaper reports – and they are not more than that – suggest the UK might give, however, the EU a free pass over many of these jobs in return for access to the EU market. And there will be, correspondingly, less opportunities for non EU citizens.

This will be good for those South Americans who have dual nationality and an EU passport – they would continue to have to access to these jobs. And there is an unfortunate racial dimension to this. These South Americans are more likely to be white than of African descent.

If life is better for those with EU citizenship than for other South Americans, will it continue to be as good(-ish)?

The route chosen by many in the past is of looking for work whilst learning English and then making their way up. In many ways, this, the heroic narrative of the migrant, will no longer be available in the UK, at least. For it is also likely to be barred to EU citizens.

There are then the many who have been residing here for many years. The position of the British government is that it will guarantee the rights of EU citizens residing in the UK if this is reciprocated for British citizens living in the European Union. As no strong arguments are being made by other EU governments against this, it may be agreed in 2017.

So, all rosy? Not quite.

First, there is complete silence about the quality of the right of residence to be granted. At the moment, EU citizens can apply for permanent residence after living in the UK for five years. Otherwise, they can only reside here if they are economically active, economically self-sufficient or a family member of an EU citizen who is. If they leave their UK employment and business and return a little later, they must start again. This is not practically a problem as EU citizens are entitled to come back to look for work. However, it is not clear whether this right to return will be granted. If a Brazilian-Italian gave up a job after two years in the UK and returned to Brazil for three months, it is uncertain whether they could return.

Secondly, it is also unclear whom will be granted these rights. At the moment, under EU law, anybody who has dual nationality is able to assert her EU citizenship no matter how tenuous her connection to the EU state relative to her connection to her South American state. However, in international law, states can insist on an effective nationality test. The individual must show a genuine link with the state of their EU citizenship to claim the benefits of EU citizenship. It is unclear which test the British will apply. If it is the effective nationality test, a Brazilian living in the UK for a number of years who had got their EU citizenship by virtue of an Italian mother, for example, may be vulnerable.

The final question is what rights, beyond those of residence, such citizens will be granted in the future. A key part of the referendum campaign was that EU citizens would be deprived of many social benefits for their first four years of residence. It would be surprising if the British government wished a more generous regime for these now that it is leaving. It may well seek to negotiate that EU citizens get limited social rights until they have lived for a number of years in the UK.

So worrying times for all Brazilians. If they have EU citizenship, it is certainly worth lobbying their EU state about these matters. If they have lived in the UK, it is advisable to begin the cumbersome process of applying for permanent residence.

I will end with some shafts of light. EU governments are unlikely to tolerate poor treatment of their citizens, particularly given the language used by some British politicians, and will take an ‘all for one and one for all’ approach. It has also been pointed out by my colleague, Jonathan Portes, that the kind of migration restrictions envisaged may do more damage to the British economy than limited access to the single market. There may be a time when the impacts of its actions dawn on the British government.

And, finally, it is not clear that the authorities can handle all this. In the last five years, an average of 150,000 new British passports were dished out each year. And this stretched the Border Agency! How it will cope with considering the status of the 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK at a time of budget cuts is a mystery. The bets are that it will mess up and have to make the process quicker and easier than it is at the moment.


  • Professor Damian Chalmers is a senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe group