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Briefings

The outflow: Brits abroad

in | by Hugo Dixon

Most of the debate over free movement concerns the influx of foreigners. But remember how it works both ways. Brits are free to work, study and retire across the Channel. Hundreds of thousands of our citizens work in other EU countries; hundreds of thousands more have retired to sunnier climates around the Mediterranean.

Although there is a wide range of estimates of how many Brits live in the EU – and the lack of an agreed definition of what constitutes living in a particular country – House of Commons briefing thinks the best figure is 1.2 million. These figures, though, don’t include people who live abroad part time. The Institute for Public Policy Research reckoned in 2008 that, if you include part-timers, there were 1 million Brits living in Spain, and a third of a million apiece living in France and Ireland. The think-tank reached these estimates in part by making assumptions to fill gaps in the data. 

Despite the euro zone’s recent economic woes, 69% of Brits feel it is important that we are free to get jobs in other EU countries compared to 21% who don’t, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. It is quite likely, what’s more, that some time in the future other EU economies will be booming when Britain is suffering. The freedom to cross the Channel to find work without any hassle could then be particularly valuable. Remember Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the comedy television series from the 1980s about British construction workers who went to Germany when unemployment was high here? Such days may return.

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Quite apart from being able to respond to short-term fluctuations in job opportunities at home, free movement gives our citizens the opportunity to broaden their minds and gain skills. Students can, for example, take advantage of the Erasmus programme which helps fund a year’s study in another EU country. Over 90,000 UK students participated in this scheme between 2007 and 2013.

If we left the EU, it is not at all clear what would happen to our citizens living and working abroad. But the best guess is that tit-for-tat would prevail. In the unlikely event that relations got really acrimonious and we kicked EU citizens out of the UK, the EU would probably retaliate and kick out our citizens too. That would be disastrous. More likely, we would just severely curtail new immigrants crossing the Channel to Britain. The EU would then probably put limits on Brits going to live, study and work there. Some Brits living in EU countries might also be subject to “integration rules” requiring them to learn the local language. Meanwhile, if we required some EU citizens (say from Romania) to get visas before visiting the UK, the EU would probably respond by requiring us to get visas if we wanted to visit anywhere in the EU, even just for a holiday.

This is an excerpt from “The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better” by Hugo Dixon. 

Factchecking by Luke Lythgoe

This piece was updated on Feb. 27 to take account of the new data in a House of Commons briefing