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20 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:02pm

The Brexodus is real, and it will hurt the UK

The number of EU nationals working in the UK is falling, leaving a skills shortage. And the government is doing too little to stop it. 

By Maike Bohn

Kerstin is worried. When the German special needs teaching assistant saw the news about the biggest annual drop in EU nationals working in the UK, her thoughts turned to the large number of Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Hungarian children at her school.

She describes them as hard-working children – from hard-working families – who make up healthy enough numbers to keep the school, and its funding and teaching jobs, going. This will undoubtedly change in the near future. 

EU citizens living in the UK are unsure what their future will hold. Warm words about wanting the “best and the brightest” clash with the reality of Home Office blunders, the threat of no deal, the deafening silence on what might happen to their rights in case of no deal.

They also resent being treated as pure economic commodities who lose value when they stop work to care for a British relative. Many are now planning to leave and are watching incredulously what is unfolding.

Among those planning to leave is French sculptor, Laure: “I’m just an unworthy migrant in the eyes of the Home Office so I’m leaving after 32 years here.”

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The UK government is tearing itself apart over the contradiction of wanting to be a forward-thinking, open and entrepreneurial nation doing trade with the world, while its Home Office denies visas to artists, writers, musicians, and its politicians openly celebrate reduced numbers of foreigners.

Meanwhile the government’s immigration paper has been postponed, there is increased talk of no deal, and the small print of the Withdrawal Agreement is also not looking too good. But EU citizens might not even have picked up on the finer detail of the UK’s attempts to leave the backdoor open to tweak/restrict their rights in future. What they have picked up on is a public discourse driven by clichés and lazy assumptions; by right-wing media’s portrayal of EU citizens as spongers or driving down wages.

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Of course there are many who aren’t emotionally invested in the UK. They are turning their backs because of the weak pound, the uncertainty about pension transfers, the ability to access healthcare and work in the UK for a few years without settling permanently.

Last week’s news that in the last year the number of EU nationals working in the UK has fallen by 86,000 – the highest number yet recorded – is clear evidence that the Brexodus is real. This coincides with a rise in the number of job vacancies to a record high of 829,000 – some 51,000 more than a year previously. The NHS alone accounts for nearly 100,000 of these vacancies, with the number of new EU nurses registering in the UK having fallen by 96 per cent

These figures show that the much-needed investment in home-grown talent is not happening. The real issue isn’t immigrants “stealing” jobs, but the lack of sufficient skills and other training in the UK – decades of structural neglect.

Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart recently complained about a “shocking decline of foreign language skills”, claiming only around 2,900 students took A-levels in German this year. Language and communication skills will be in short supply post-Brexit for the many international businesses depending on them.

One such business is Kingston Technology, a London-based software company run by a German, which employs both EU and non-EU staff. Its vice president of sales and marketing, Bernd Dombrowsky, has huge concerns about a loss of flexibility to access people with the right skills when the need arises. This has already hit the headlines with regards to seasonal workers, care professionals and abattoir vets, but, according to Dombrowsky, there is an untold story looming behind the dwindling numbers of EU nationals who in the last couple of decades contributed to the success of British businesses in sales, marketing, customer service and other customer-facing roles. “They plug the hole which the British educational system has left gaping by not producing the language skills required to sustain a successful export strategy,” Dombrowsky said. Anecdotally, potential candidates with these skills will now consider their options in Germany, France, Spain and other places attracting new businesses before jumping into an uncertain legal and economic adventure in Britain.

Therefore those who rejoice and say EU citizens staying away will force inward investment and British people into such jobs are misguided. It will take a generation to fix structural issues, such as the education system, and the UK will be reliant on foreign-trained immigrants for years to come. The Romanian doctor will simply be replaced by an Indian doctor. The UK needs immigration and we will see non-EU migration increasing as a result of the UK becoming less welcoming for EU citizens.

More importantly, the lack of a measured, fact-based immigration debate is damaging Britain’s reputation, and will not only turn future EU citizens away from the UK but also lead to an even bigger exodus from the UK. Politicians and pundits underestimate how crippling uncertainty is and that people need to feel valued by their communities to thrive.

Among the 37,000 members of the3million forum, the largest grassroots movement of EU citizens in the UK, there is a big increase in those planning to leave. I hear on a daily basis that “we are just waiting for my son to finish college. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be gone already.”

Meanwhile, many other EU citizens in the UK have children studying elsewhere who are at risk of not qualifying for the new status, but who also wouldn’t consider working in a country that wants to turn them into second-class citizens. This means those vacant jobs risk staying vacant. A quick look at Jaguar Landrover’s website shows that many jobs stipulate a right to work in the UK, while not fulfilling the UK government’s visa requirements. This could mean many more unfilled positions over the next 12 months, at all skills levels.

What is urgently needed to stem the tide is a clear commitment from the UK government that there will be no cliff-edge for EU citizens. Citizens’ rights campaigners the3million are asking the UK and the EU to ring-fence what has been agreed so far on citizens’ rights, regardless of a no deal. Only then could both parties claim the moral high ground.

Maike Bohn is co-founder of the3million.