Anna Wilson | Immigration has been the buzzword of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum campaign. From debates in Parliament to heated discussions around pub tables, it is an issue that has got people talking and divided a nation.
What seems to have escaped the conversation, however, is that immigration between the UK and the EU is a two-way street, so it’s possible that a Brexit would create more immigration problems than it would solve. Whilst those entering the UK are quickly labelled as “immigrants” by enthusiastic tabloid journalists, British citizens leaving for the continent are afforded the much less negative label of “expats”. So what does this asymmetry mean for the future of the UK in the EU? And more specifically, what does it mean for the Brexpats?
Hostility towards immigrants in the UK is high. This is particularly true in areas of economic hardship and when discussion issues regarding the British Welfare State, particularly the NHS and child benefits (a measure of David Cameron’s “special deal” which was recently rejected by the European Court). These strong feelings are often irrational, and – fuelled by sensationalism from the media – have directed the focus of both the IN and OUT campaign away from constructive debate.
The exact number of Brits abroad is difficult to determine, but estimates place the figure somewhere between 1.3 and 2.2 million. The refusal to see immigration in the UK as a two-way system has meant that these people have largely been left out of the debate. As people with a vested interest in staying in the EU, what does this mean for the outcome of the referendum? And what could it mean for the Brexpats?
Under the principles set forth in the Maastricht Treaty of the free movement of people, every EU citizen has the right to live, work and study anywhere in the EU. If Britain leaves the EU and its citizens cease to become European, in theory they will lose their right to free movement.
Thanks to the Vienna Convention, there will be a certain amount of protection afforded to people already living in EU countries should the UK leave. It is most likely that they would be able to retain their acquired rights, but for short term, recently migrated and future migrants, there is no telling what the future may hold.
Whether the UK would be able to negotiate a deal with the remaining members of the EU is down to speculation, but the crucial thing is that that Brexpats have had very little chance to have their say in the referendum. After denying the vote to those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years, the fact that UK to EU immigration has been left (or kept) off the agenda has reduced the impact of such people’s voices. The fact that they are not in the UK and cannot physically campaign simply adds to this.
The fate of the millions of Brexpats therefore largely lies in the hands of others, so for them they will not be leaping into the dark, they will have been tripped.