From jobs to homes, EU citizens are already experiencing Brexit’s hostile environment

Europeans are angry, and tired, and finding themselves in situations the government had promised would never happen.

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This week has been a perfect demonstration of what it’s like for EU citizens to live in the UK.

A few months before the big Brexit bang on 29 March 2019, while they are still waiting to apply to the British government’s “settled status” (the app for which still doesn’t fully work on Apple devices, meaning more than half the UK’s adult population can’t use it on their phone), EU nationals have once again been misled about their future in the country.

On Tuesday, immigration minister Caroline Nokes told a parliamentary select committee that businesses would have to conduct checks to ensure that their European employees are still entitled to work in the UK after Brexit – but she couldn’t say how, and added that this would be “incredibly difficult”. By Thursday, though, the Home Office had had to clarify that “employers will not be expected to differentiate between resident EU citizens and those arriving after exit.” And the UK’s EU citizens were left wondering how they were supposed to sort out their own individual situations if the British government didn’t even agree on what post-Brexit EU immigration policy it wanted exactly.

“Over the last months, the UK government has been reluctant to provide any detail on what will happen to the citizens' rights for the 3.6 million EU citizens in the UK beyond a vague verbal unilateral guarantee given by Theresa May in October,” the citizens’ rights group the3million told the New Statesman. Nokes’ comments meant “plunging 3.6 million EU citizens directly into the hostile environment”, it added.

The settled status application period runs years beyond the day the UK might crash out of the EU. Since not all EU nationals will have applied and received the status by then, Europeans would find themselves unable to prove they have the right to remain. A promise from the government doesn’t equal legal documents – that’s exactly what the Windrush scandal underlined. 

Having the right to work in the UK, whether you have to prove it or not, is already a headache for EU citizens. Because the Brexit outcome is still so vague, it’s difficult to plan ahead professionally, even just to one year in the future. Anna Runicky (not her real name), an Austrian citizen working in the academic sector, is on a fixed-term contract running until next October. “If my current employer then wants to re-hire me, or if I move to a different one, I will have to prove my right to work,” she tells me. “Unless I already have Settled Status by then, this will be, to cite Ms Nokes, ‘a challenge’.”

A study from Oxford Economics recently found that each year, European citizens in the UK contribute £2,300 more to public finances than the UK average. Over their lifespan in the UK, the net contribution to the exchequer for one EU citizen is estimated around £78,000. None of this has apparently been enough for the British government to guarantee their rights to work after Brexit. Mishaps such as Nokes’ might just be mishaps, but after 850 days in what many describe as “limbo”, Europeans are angry, and tired, and finding themselves in situations the government had promised would never happen.

Many Europeans already have a “hostile environment” story. On various social media forums for EU citizens, people have been complaining about new details in job ads for months – often now, the recruiter plainly asks for a “British passport” instead of proof of the right to work in the EU, a common request previously. This is not a legal requirement, since the UK hasn’t left the EU until next March. But it’s already happening, and frightening Europeans. 

Working won’t be the only issue for EU nationals, come March. Runicky is worried that she will lose her temporary rented flat after Brexit. She has been in the UK since 2008 and moved to Edinburgh for work in September, where she struggled to find accomodation. “I could not in good faith assure a landlord that it will continue to be legal for them to rent to me after next March,” she tells me.

Her current landlord is what she calls a “counterpart”: a British citizen living in the EU “who was prepared to let solidarity go before convenience”, she explains. She considers herself lucky. But while both would like to make the lease permanent, her landlord is worried that doing so could make him “fall foul of the law and/or violate the terms of his mortgage agreement”. “Caroline Nokes' recent comments do not help one bit,” she says. And so Runicky finds herself in a situation in which not the law or a bad landlord, but the climate of uncertainty around EU citizens’ rights, continually threatens her accomodation.

Ghislaine van der Burgt, a Dutch freelance translator who lives in Barry, Wales, speaks of a similar rental nightmare. After separating from her partner last year, she found impossible to find accomodation for her and her two children, aged 13 and 11. “Literally every broker had a problem with the combination of self-employed and foreign passport,” she said. Most conversations with real estate agents turned difficult after her Dutch nationality was mentioned, she said.

Van der Burgt, who after two months of living in a friend’s house managed to buy a small house with another friend’s recommendation, stresses that she been living in England and Wales for 23 years, has never had any problems with her Dutch nationality before, and speaks “neatly, without accent”. Because yes, EU citizens feel compelled to stress such facts now. In case you’re wondering: they didn’t feel that way before. This is new territory.

If landlords and employers doubt you, what about banks? Bills? Schools? And anything else requiring a proof of UK residency?

Rights that EU citizens were certain about for so long feel like they are shifting. AB Silvera is a freelance artist and support worker from South America who holds Italian citizenship and has lived in Scotland since 2012. After she had a problem concerning her housing benefit claim, the Glasgow City Council told her she should “prepare to leave”. It was a “scare tactic for people who don't have resources to understand that they do have a right to remain”, she says. “Glasgow City Council knows full well I'm an EU citizen. I know for a fact GCC has no power to enforce these, or demand I answer them, so I did not.” Even so, she said the letter triggered a mental crisis: “I started packing my bags, you know?”

For EU citizens, the “hostile environment” is already here, in the details. It’s not the first time a careless comment from a minister gives them a fright, and it certainly won’t be the last. They’re still left in the dark: “I obsessively check the news for something, anything, that will tell me what's going to happen to me”, Silvera tells me. “I'm terrified that settled status will be trap, used to ‘weed out’ those of us too poor, or deemed ‘not productive enough.’”

Runicky, who will take part in a settled status application trial in November, says that if she doesn’t get her status by Brexit day, she will have to hire an immigration lawyer to prove her rights. “The problem is not that we don't have or will lose our rights, the problem is that no one knows how to prove them after next March”, she says. 

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