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The Departing #3: The EU citizens stuck in limbo after the Brexit vote

“Why would I have to leave? To let them win?”

In the finale of a series on the precarious situation of EU nationals in the UK since the Brexit vote, we look at those who can't leave, or have decided to wait and see. Read episodes 1 and 2.

The morning of the Brexit referendum, Adam Slawek Fejfer went to work and was greeted by British colleagues with “Oh you’re here? We thought you’d be leaving.” This happened not just once, he says, but several times, in different places. “I have lived in the UK 13 years,” he says. “It’s the first time people called me ‘Polish’ anything.” Fejfer, 33, lives in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He came to the UK to study and is now married with two children, both born in the UK.

Like many other EU citizens, Fejfer’s life has been turned upside down by the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. But unlike many who have already left the country or are planning to do so, he isn’t sure what to do about it. What he knows is that he doesn’t want to go back to Poland:  “It’s part of me, but it’s difficult to go back to a country so close minded when I try to be open minded. Here, I’ve got friends from the Philippines, Australia… In Poland, it would be difficult to have these connections.” Another reason is economic: “It’s difficult for the Brits to understand, but my mother in Poland earned roughly £1,000 a month, as a nurse with 25 years of experience.”

He and his wife don’t know what they will do over the next two or three years: “Asked to leave 18 months ago, I would have said no, but now I don’t know.” There is the mortgage to pay, the many friends they would leave behind if they moved. “We haven’t decided yet”, he adds. “I prefer to stay. The UK is my home.”

All the EU citizens I talked to for this series know many others in the same situation – friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people befriended on Brexit forums. All can cite several families who have left the UK, or are leaving. All have thought of leaving themselves.

Like most EU citizens who are still here, Fejfer has seen friends leaving for mainland Europe. “It’s difficult to count all of them,” he says. He tries to encourage people to stay, he adds, because going back – and “being an immigrant again” – is just as hard as leaving. A Polish family he knows left during the summer. “It’s hard for them to adapt, in jobs, find a place to stay,” he says. “The people who have been back in Poland don’t feel at home there either.” And those who stay behind see their social circle thinning.


Adam Slawek Fejfer
Credit: Msikoraphotography

Lisa has no idea what to do after Brexit. She asked me not to use her real name, because she is wary of its impact on her partner’s potential application for permanent residence (PR). She moved to the UK from Germany in January 2011 with her partner, Markus. “We came to stay,” she says. Then two things happened: in 2010, the five-year rule (PR applicants must have been in the UK for five years) was introduced, followed in 2015 by the Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (CSI) requirement in PR applications. This latter change was poorly communicated, with many EU citizens only hearing about the requirement to take out insurance after Brexit, and the details of who must take it out remaining opaque. In the case of Lisa and Markus, both are academics in scientific fields and switched roles in 2014: he started work and she starting studying for her PhD, which meant that by 2015, she had CSI as a student and he didn’t.

This distinction became crucial when they tried to apply for PR in 2015 and realised the law had changed. “When we arrived, that didn’t exist, so we didn’t have it [CSI]”, she says. Suddenly, for her partner, “the five years in the country were void”. Only Lisa received PR, and then citizenship, in 2016. “I am a dual citizen but Markus remains German. There’s no chance he gets [PR] before Brexit”, she tells me. “Of course, we’ll stay together. But we have no idea what the rules are going to look like [after Brexit]. We have been here eight years, we have a life here.” Markus even volunteers as special constable with Hampshire Constabulary, 10 hours a week, which is ironic, he says, because that means he “basically works for the Home Office for free”.

Even if Markus can get citizenship, Lisa says, their future in the UK is uncertain: “Research funding in the UK comes from EU and already breaking away. Money is leaving and so are jobs, so there may not be work for us.” The couple are calculating that Brexit will happen on 29 March 2019. In a no deal scenario, “Markus loses his right to work overnight, so I need a job at that point”. She could manage, as she will hand her PhD in December 2018. But the law might change again by then, and for the past year and a half, the British government has constantly refused to guarantee the right to remain for EU nationals in the UK after Brexit. So they may leave – not to Germany, where they “never intended to go back to”, but to France, Sweden, Ireland or Austria. “Where are we going to feel at home?” she wonders. “At the moment, the UK is home.”

For the European nationals still in the UK, Brexit has had a double cost. There’s the possibility of discrimination, the fact that the government still hasn’t guaranteed their rights, their friends and relatives slowly leaving. But every other general aspect of Brexit, like inflation, is hitting them too. Before the referendum, Lisa and Markus were planning to buy a home. They wired their savings from Germany. “And then the pound crashed”, Lisa says. “We definitely lost money in that.” Yet with uncertainty hanging over them, they made the costly decision to wire the money back. “We’re not willing to invest anything in the country at the moment”, she says.


Lisa and Markus
Credit: K. Seier

Some EU nationals don’t have the choice to move. Since the referendum, there have been times when Vie, a Frenchwoman who has lived in the UK for 17 years, wondered whether she should leave the UK. “But I can’t leave,” she says. Vie is divorced and would need permission from her children’s father to leave the country with them. “He is a refugee, so he couldn’t really visit,” she tells me. And so she stays.

Because she may still apply for citizenship, Vie declined to share her family name. In the 16 months since the EU referendum, the Yorkshire resident has had to apply for citizenship for both of her French children – aged 11 and 16 – and for permanent residence for herself, which cost lots of money. “I don’t necessarily want to become British,” she tells me. “My head is all over the place, I lost my job in June.” (She has since then found a new one). Financially, at the moment, she can’t apply for citizenship for herself.

Leaving wouldn’t be easy, either: Vie came to the UK age 19. “I am losing my French, I don’t know how to get a job in France, my kids would struggle to adapt,” she says. In the UK, she has worked as a community development coordinator, but she fears that in France, her degree in health and social care “wouldn’t mean anything”. She sighs: “A year ago, I would have said that I’m not leaving, but now…” Now, she’s seriously considering it. “There are no good options, it’s quite depressing.” Vie is one of many EU citizens who have shared their testimonies of life in the UK since the referendum in the book “In Limbo”. She is also an activist with the3million.


Vie reading the book "In Limbo"

The EU citizens stuck in the UK often are so for family reasons. Petra was 19 when she moved from Germany to the UK, and she only planned to stay for six months. She is 48 now, and she is still here, for a reason she shares with many other EU citizens in the UK: a few months after her arrival, she met a nice British man, and they married. Petra isn’t her real name – like other Europeans who have no choice but to stay, she’d rather not go on the record if that could be used against her in potential future applications. “This country scares me, it really does”, she told me, adding that she would have left after the referendum if she could have. But she can’t, because her husband is British: “He doesn’t speak German, he won’t find a job, he has a business here.” She admits it would be difficult even for her: “We’re 50, we can’t just pack a suitcase. I’ve never lived as an adult in Germany, it would be like another country.”

Because she had several careers in law and journalism, travelled in and out of Britain, and took time off to have children (who are now at GCSE age), Petra doesn’t qualify for permanent residence: she never had constant CSI. The CSI requirement, she says, was applied retrospectively and the change was not announced. “So a group of people is suddenly an awful situation.”

Because her husband is British, not a European national, treaty rights don’t apply to her. “If we were living in France or Germany, my husband would be protected as a spouse: one’s healthcare would cover the other’s,” she says, appalled that the British system doesn’t allow this. “They’re doing all they can to break families. I studied law [in the UK]! I don’t recognise this law and country. It’s absolutely frightening.”

Without permanent residence, there’s no citizenship; and without her husband’s capacity to move, there’s no leaving, either, so Petra is stuck in legal limbo. “I couldn’t apply to PR, but I thought: If it all goes wrong, I’m the mother of British citizens, surely they have the right to have their mother here?” she tells me. But as it turns out, it’s more complicated.

If her children were only EU nationals, treaty rights would guarantee their mother’s right to remain. The Home Office's guidance regarding children born in the UK to EU citizens specifies that “family members have a right to reside in the United Kingdom so long as the EEA national remains in UK in the exercise of treaty rights (until such time as the family members gain a right of residence in their own right)”. But Petra’s children are British, so “British laws apply, and they already have one other British parent to take care of them”, Petra sums up. “I feel trapped. As a lawyer, I’m in this situation and I can’t help myself! I’m vulnerable. No one is speaking out for European spouses of British citizens.”

Like Petra, Frederika Roberts wasn’t planning on staying in the UK after her graduation, but she revisited her plans after meeting her husband at university. The 45 year old, an Italian and German national who grew in Luxembourg, moved to the UK because “British universities are wonderful”. Now she finds herself in the “national suicide” that is Brexit, and feels lost.

To Roberts, moving would mean leaving her daughters behind for their studies. It would also mean selling her house and “relearning to be adult somewhere else” – a feeling many EU citizens share. Her husband, a technical engineer, would struggle to find a senior position matching his current one, and he doesn’t speak Italian or German. “We’re applying to Italian citizenship for him, at least, so that he retains EU citizenship”, she says. Her daughters have told her they will leave the country as soon as possible once they graduate.

 “I have visions of being stuck, I feel like a fish out of water, it’s horrible,” Roberts says. “On one hand I want to leave, but I’ve got to consider my family, and I have a business partner, how would our business model work?” And then the rage comes in: “I don’t want to bloody give in! Why would I have to leave? To let them win?”

Not every European national will leave as a result of Brexit. But those who will choose to stay will never forget the way the Conservative government treated them. Some wanted to believe David Cameron had a plan. Many tell me they still hope “Brexit will not happen”. None trust Theresa May’s government.

“The government has shown no respect for rule of law”, Petra, the German woman married to a Brit, tells me. “People’s rights are being weakened by applying laws retrospectively [like the CSI requirement for PR]. A country that behaves like that – and not just with the EU, but with Grenfell, with disabled benefits – it worries me for my children.”


Frederika Roberts

For some, Brexit has been the spark that triggered a deeper interest in politics and activism. Fejfer, the Polish man who has been here 13 years, hopes to stay, but he wants to “be treated better, to be equal”. “I live in uncertainty”, he says. “I want to focus on politics.” He says he is planning to become a UK citizen, a necessity to advance a political career, but the £1,200 application fee is “almost [his] monthly salary”. “They can reject your application and you won’t have your money back”, he says. So that will have to wait – but he has already run as a local candidate in council elections and is a proud member of the Liberal Democrats. “I believe Brexit can be stopped,” he tells me. “I would like to be prime minister of the UK.”

Frederika Roberts is worried about the rights May has promised to give EU citizens: “‘Broadly similar’ isn’t ‘the same as’. I don’t feel reassured about what my government says. Without protection like the European Court of Justice, I don’t feel reassured with any of that. What if I’m not earning enough?” Vie, the Frenchwoman from Yorkshire, agrees: “The right-wing language of the home office is very worrying.” She works with people with dementia, and she feels insulted that the government would consider such work “low-skilled” in their “settled status” proposal. “It requires skills to work with people with dementia,” she says.

EU citizens are stuck between bad options – leaving or staying, abandoning everything or being possibly denied rights. “It just feels shit! I’m sorry, that’s what it is,” says Roberts in a very British way. They’re also stuck between identities. “I love Britain, I love living here, it is my home, it’s where I’ve chosen to live,” Roberts says. “I didn’t come here as an economic migrant: I came here to study and happened to fall in love.”

“But I also feel German and Italian, I am attached to Luxembourg… My identity is European, it’s not one place or one country, and that, I feel, is being dripped away.” Vie feels the same: “All my friends are here in the UK, home is here. It breaks my heart.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.