Anxiety and frustration in the day-to-day lives of British abroad

In the few short portraits our Citizens’ Panel members have sent us so far (meet the Brits in Europe) we already begin to see how important Brexit is in the day-to-day lives of British people living abroad.  Michaela and I have only been working on this project for a little over a month and we are shocked and moved by the effects the decision is having on people’s lives. Some of these portraits are quite painful to read or to listen to.

First, these portraits illustrate some of the diversity of British people living abroad, with students represented here as well as retired people, those working self-employed and those running large companies, young single people and families. Despite this diversity, a common theme in the portraits is the confusion and frustration around Brexit and how it will impact on their lives. The vote to leave the EU is described here as a bombshell introducing immediate uncertainty (John), or a terrible shock (David). Ellie said it was the first time she cried after the result of a referendum. For Sue anxiety levels are running high; she is anxious about the terms and conditions that may apply to her, her family, and her animals.  Russell says “Brexit has the potential to ruin my life if the negotiations go badly”.

There are those who are seriously worried, like Chris, who doesn’t know what healthcare provision he will have nor what will happen about his state pension. David doesn’t know if he moves back to the UK whether his wife would also be able to join him there. Heléna and her husband both lost their jobs as a result of Brexit and have decided to move to France. But Heléna is both excited and nervous about this decision.

Several people in these portraits talk of applying for citizenship where they live, or for dual citizenship where that is an option. But they admit this can be a frustrating and frightening process, and for some will result in them losing citizenship in the UK, or their partners or children not being free to join them here.

A further common theme is the fear people have about what Brexit will mean for their children, or their children’s children, and where they might live (or have the right to live) in the future.

Somewhat depressingly, several of these portraits illustrate a lack of confidence in the UK government to look after their interests adequately. Chris said, “I have no faith in the UK government to know how to listen to or provide representation for” us.

Despite all this apparent negativity, there is a strong sense in the portraits of a love for Europe, for it’s openness and the possibilities the European project offered. John, for example, says he “came to see Europe through the eyes of continental Europeans: a project that seeks to avert future conflicts through trade, industry and exchange of goods, services and people”. Many have the learned the language of the country, or countries, they have moved to in Europe, and several feel integrated. Faye and her husband want still to be able to move freely; they “like to experience different places, cultures and languages through immersion”.

Russell refers to his life in Europe as “a journey of perspective as well as distance”. This is a profound and thought-provoking note on which to end this blog.

Karen OReilly


Karen is a Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University. She is also an ethnographer, a wife, mother, and grandmother! Currently she is driven by the wish to raise the public profile of sociology

5 Responses

  1. Russell G says:

    Reblogged this on Russell Greenwood and commented:
    I’d just like to share this great post from Professor Karen O’Reilly, in which she sums up a selection of British expat perspectives on Brexit (including my own).

    Anyone interested in reading more about, or taking part in, the project can do so at:

  1. August 16, 2017

    […] in rural France and elsewhere in the EU27. However, as I will sketch out in future posts, and as Karen has stressed in her post it is clear that Brexit is already affecting the lives of some of Britain’s citizens living and […]

  2. September 6, 2017

    […] Even in the absence of knowing what Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will mean in term…. They counter their uncertainties and anxieties by evaluating their options—how to stay in France, whether to go back to Britain—and starting to take action on the basis of what they believe will be best for their lives. What becomes clear is the extent to which these plans and actions aim to restore certainty to their lives. […]

  3. December 31, 2017

    […] was considerable uncertainty about their futures. This uncertainty—shared by many in our research as Karen discusses here—about what Brexit would mean on an individual level was echoed by some of those who were […]

  4. March 30, 2018

    […] of this. While in the run up to the agreement, we had registered considerable uncertainty and disquiet among the UK citizens living in the EU27 taking part in the research, we wondered whether the […]

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