Unsettled status: EU citizens’ Brexit journeys

Here, in a piece written by a supporter*, fellow Europeans from the EU-27 who have lived and worked in Scotland recount their personal experiences of Brexit’s impact upon their lives, not least the effort and, often pain and hurt involved in seeking settled/pre-settled status.

A sense of betrayal

The one word that many EU citizens use to describe how they feel more than five years after the referendum is ‘betrayed’. Betrayed by a country but also by friends and family who voted for Brexit, maybe without realising what impact this would have on their European friends. How often have I been told that they didn’t mean me when they voted for Brexit?! That surely this would not impact on my life as I am married to a Brit and therefore ‘safe’ (a wrong assumption to begin with). How wrong could they be?!

Brexit changed the atmosphere in the UK as well as the rules for EU citizens. Language changed and we were suddenly called ‘immigrants’, ‘foreigners’ and even ‘aliens’. A culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’ developed and hostile language started to be normalised.

Suddenly being signalled that you are unwelcome in the country you love and call your home is a shock. You begin to feel worried, vulnerable, hurt and even scared and angry because you have not changed, but the world around you has without your having had a say in this. You cannot make sense of this sudden change and don’t know where it will lead. You are suddenly torn between your love for this country and the anger and hurt you feel.

And you are constantly in limbo because there is so much uncertainty that you cannot make informed decisions or plans. Bearing in mind that all EU citizens (including Brits!) had the right to free movement, allowed by a contract between our countries to work and live, fall in love and make a home in another EU country. This was a contract supposed to form a safe basis on which to build a new life.

Our stories

Speaking personally, I have called the UK my home for almost 30 years, am married to a Brit and our children were born here. I have always felt welcomed and integrated in Scotland, never felt like an outsider and was settled and at home here. Until Brexit came. I am grateful to the First Minister for repeatedly reassuring EU citizens that we continue to be welcome in Scotland. However, the gradual increase in hostile language, fully embraced by many in the UK media and politics, has led to a very different atmosphere for EU citizens in the UK. A close friend of mine said: 

“Brexit has left me feeling angry and upset, but most of all I feel betrayed by a country I considered home. I have been living in the UK for over 30 years, my husband is British and both my children were born here. The UK has always felt like home, I felt settled and I have never felt different to my British friends but Brexit has changed everything. It feels like a rug has been pulled from under my feet and as if the foundations on which I have built my life have been moved. 

“Now I find myself questioning my identity – am I European, German, British, Scottish? Does it matter? It feels like in Brexit Britain it does matter and Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ comment really hurt. Now I feel different from my British friends and I ask myself if I am still wanted here. Now I feel that my future in the UK is uncertain and for the first time I am considering a move back to my home country and to the heart of Europe. At the end of the day, I am European.”

Another, Swedish, friend, says: “Brexit has altered the way I feel about where I live though. The atmosphere has decidedly changed. I am ‘lucky’, I think, in that I’m a blond Caucasian with an Anglicised name and no discernible accent. I have never been called out for being foreign or other. But I have seen it happen. This change has manifested itself into a constant low-level anxiety, always feeling the need to be able to justify my being here in this country that I truly love. It’s exhausting. Some of my closest friends voted for Brexit, and it has been very difficult at times to separate my feelings for them as friends and my feelings of being completely thrown under the proverbial bus. My life (my kids) is here; but who knows what will happen in the future – or where I’ll end up…”

Never mind, dearie…

There was another change that many EU citizens, including myself, found unsettling. It was the dismissiveness with which their concerns were being met. Not just by the government but by the general public and even family and friends. Their worries were belittled, their experiences of discrimination and racism not believed, and they were even told that they had no right to feel upset, worried or scared. I know of friendships and marriages that broke up because of this.

All these feelings were and are real though and need to be acknowledged and addressed. We all have a need to belong and to feel safe, and if these basic needs are not being met, it can have an impact on a person’s mental health. It is therefore not surprising that the change in atmosphere and the uncertainty after the Brexit referendum resulted in an increase in cases of anxiety and depression for EU citizens, as shown by two studies by Robert Gordon University from 2019 and 2021.

Fear and worry also showed in behaviour changes in everyday life. My German friends and I for example discussed whether we still felt safe to speak German in public and refrained from doing so for some time as it made us feel vulnerable. Other friends of mine used to live in London but in 2019 decided to move to Scotland after several racist incidents, where they were verbally and in one case physically abused and told to go back to where they came from. I have heard similar stories from many EU citizens, some of whom eventually decided to leave the UK and move to countries where they felt welcome, appreciated and safe.

Impact of legal chaos

Before the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave team that now dominates the UK Government promised that nothing would change for EU citizens already in the UK. But after the vote, we were told that we would have to apply for the right to stay in the country, to ask for permission to stay in our own homes and with our British families. The UK government explicitly chose an application, rather than a registration (declarative) system. This way the onus was on us to apply and prove that we have been living here. If we didn’t, we would risk deportation!

The rules for this process changed several times, causing even more confusion and anxiety, but it finally culminated in the current regulations for (Pre-) Settled Status under the EUSS. Sadly, this has not led to the ‘settled’ and safe feeling we all hoped for as the process still causes confusion, anxiety and problems for many.

During the run up to the application deadline for (settled/pre-settled) status under EUSS on 30 June 2021, it became obvious that thousands of EU citizens had been unaware they needed to apply for their new legal status to continue to live in the country. Many believed they were exempt as they were the spouse of a British citizen, others thought they had lived here so long they had automatically acquired the right to remain and many assumed wrongly that their children were automatically included in the parents’ Settled Status.

Then there were those vulnerable groups – people in care or with dementia dependent on others to apply for them, those with limited English language skills, without internet access or too little tech knowledge – who needed to be reached and helped to be able to apply. Lockdowns during the pandemic made this extremely difficult if not impossible. The result was a last-minute rush by thousands of EU citizens to apply by the deadline. As a result, the Home Office’s website crashed multiple times and online applications could not be submitted, the Resolution Centre’s phone line was so busy that people had to wait hours to get into the queue, never mind speak to an advisor.

There were no online application forms for people who did not have valid ID (e.g. due to out of date passports or small children born in the UK who simply did not have passports yet). And the backlog of received but unprocessed applications reached an all-time high of nearly 570,000.

What’s settled?

But even once EU citizens receive their (Pre-)Settled Status, the problems are not over. This is mainly because they are the only group of immigrants in the UK who do not receive a physical document as proof of their legal status. Status under the EUSS is digital only, and this can lead to complications when having to prove their status to an employer, a landlord, to the NHS, when travelling or applying for a bank account or mortgage. The3million have written a report for the Independent Monitoring Authority which lists and analyses the problems arising from this.

For me the question now is: how do we all move on from this? How can we, Brits and EU citizens in the UK, build bridges and trust again?

I have found it helpful to join grassroots groups like EMiS, Fife4Europe and the3million. Apart from staying informed about Brexit-related topics, it has also shown me that so many British people are just as affected by Brexit, feel that they too have lost the country they thought they knew and understand what EU citizens are going through.

Furthermore, I am grateful to all the British citizens who have begun to speak up not just for themselves but who fight for EU citizens’ rights. They represent the open-minded, kind-hearted and welcoming Britain I got to know and fell in love with almost 30 years ago. And this gives me hope for the future of this beautiful country.

  • Larissa Slaney, dual national who has called Scotland her home for almost 30 years.