EU citizens after Brexit

di Sam Andrea Williams - 7 Febbraio 2020

from London, United Kingdom


3.6 million EU citizens live and work in the UK, 135.000 EU students study in the UK, and none of them could vote at the referendum deciding the future of their homes and families. The UK government, as well as EU negotiators, have set the status of citizenship after Brexit as a priority, but many have reported an array of problems, claiming that it is just the start of a series of attacks towards non-UK nationals. But what will happen to EU citizens after Brexit? What is the official discourse of the government? And what are its inherent problems? And more importantly, what does it mean to be a citizen?

EU citizens in the UK

Over 110.000 EU citizens worked in the NHS (, 2020) in 2019. 81% of EU citizens living in the UK works regularly, compared to only 75% of British nationals working in the UK (Migration Observatory, 2020). One person out of ten working in the manufacturing industry is from the EU, while 12% of all EU citizens in the UK work in retail, 10% in accommodation and food service, 8% in construction and 7% in the education sector (UK in a changing Europe, 2020). Other industries where Europeans tend to work also include the scientific sector, transport, communication, insurance and public administration (Ibid.). Remarkably, EU workers make up to 20% of labour force in 18 British industries (Doward, 2020). This small amount of data shows the huge contribution Europeans give to Great Britain, and the importance of EU citizens for the UK. However, many are leaving the country because of Brexit.

Boris Brexit’s roadmap

The 2019 British general elections gave Boris Johnson huge popular consensus, and proved how British citizens want Brexit to be finished and over. However, it looks like the road ahead is still long. Even if Brexit day is officially on 31 January, trade talks should begin after that, and negotiators will have the possibility to extend the transition period until 30 June 2020, which is currently due to end on 31 December 2020. By 31 December 2021, the trade agreement will have ratified or not. In the first and most optimistic case, the UK will withdraw from the EU with an agreement, hence starting a new relationship. In the latter case, January 2021 will see the much-feared no-deal Brexit take place (BBC News, 2020). While many have strongly supported a no-deal Brexit for trade’s sake, EU citizens will be hugely affected by it.

Stay Hungry, stay foolish

EU citizens have until 30 June 2021 to apply for the pre-settlement status or to the settlement status, and applicants are eligible to apply only if they started living permanently in the UK before 30 December 2020. The first regards Europeans who have lived in the UK less than 5 years, while the latter regards individuals who have lived and worked in the UK for over 5 years. While the first gives a determinate period in which individuals can stay in the country, the second allows applicants to reside in the UK for an indeterminate period of time. The application is currently free, and it gives EU citizens the right to live in the UK for 5 years after 31 December 2021. Additionally, the government claims this process to be extremely comprehensive, as the application process is available in 26 EU languages (Europe Street News, 2020). 

However, there is a lot of uncertainty orbiting around the likely case of no-deal Brexit. An exit of the UK from the EU without a withdrawal agreement has several repercussions on European citizens. For example, not even the government has clearly stated what will happen to EU students. Generally, if an EU citizen arrives to the UK between Brexit day and 30 June, he or she must apply for European Temporary Leave to Remain. This document allows applicants to continue living in the country for 3 years. However, if European citizens move to the UK after 30 June 2021, they will be required to have a visa (, 2020).

Hostile environment

Many have criticised the limitations of these processes, as well as the uncertainty they claim it causes and the so-called hostile environment as a social reaction to the political developments in the EU-UK relations. Initially, the application for the settled status cost £65, and it was available via app only for android phones (this excludes iPhones). One of the biggest concern is the fact that the settled status cannot be proven, as there is only a digital copy. Many claim that failure to prove a pre-settled or settled status has created notable issues, remarkably denying employment, housing and other basic rights (The Independent, 2020). Drastically, most of the people who have had problems with the application itself have been the most vulnerable, i.e. unemployed, prisoners and students (Bueltmann, 2020). These problems may have been ended by the House of Lords on 21 January (euronews, 2020), but it’s not it.

The hostile environment exemplifies itself in a variety of ways: fears of deportation of the most vulnerable people as the elderly (U.K., 2020), a raise (almost double for bachelor students) of university fees for EU citizens (Team, 2020), unemployment, housing issues, another Windrush etc… 



Or perhaps the problem is even wider than that. In such a fast-pace developing world, where multiethnic communities are becoming more varied, and where migration flows are increasing, the sense of identity is decreasing. Rather, a sense of belonging to a wider community beyond geographical borders or skin colours, especially in Europe, has been growing exponentially since the end of the Second World War. However, often the social aspect does not correspond to the legal one. As a citizen is by definition “the state of being a member of a particular country and having rights because of it” (, 2020), despite its vague character, it does not include an account of what it means being a member of a particular country. 

Additionally, the increase of world population, climate change, and globalisation at its finest state bring the world at a crossroads: either citizenships become more strict and walls multiply, or borders clear off and a wider sense of an agreed common good and broader shared interests takes place.



Autore dell’articolo*: Sam Andrea Williams, studente in International Relations alla University of Kent, nonché visiting student presso la Bogazici Universitesi, Istanbul.


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