A finger on the pulse: the British in the EU-27 respond to Brexit negotiations within UK parliament

When I launched our survey about how British citizens living in the EU-27 felt about the votes in the House of Commons about Brexit back in March, I did not expect either the extent of people’s generosity in responding to the survey or the subsequent political uncertainty about the future of the withdrawal agreement in UK Parliament. This moment passed quickly, and I found myself struggling to keep up with the protracted uncertainty. More than anything, I have found myself questioning what they offer in terms of making sense of the protracted uncertainty of Britain’s relationship with the EU. 

But on reflection there is quite a lot that this snapshot reveals that is likely as true today—the day of the European Parliament elections—as it was when I ran the survey. Not least, it communicates a strength of feeling among British citizens living in the EU-27 about the future of Britain. It also draws out their mixed emotions about the latest twists and turns. And whichever side of the Brexit debate they were on, a wariness and mistrust directed towards the British government.

So, without further ado here’s a little bit more detail.

About the survey

Following the series of votes in the House of Commons w/c 11thMarch, the BrExpats research team conducted a short survey. This was designed to keep a finger on the pulse of how British citizens living in the EU27 felt about the latest political developments related to Brexit. It ran from 15th-19thMarch 2019. There is a significant evidence gap about British citizens living in the EU27, and since May 2017, the BrExpats research team have been trying to address this through their research into what Brexit means to and for these Britons. As such, the survey forms part of a longer engagement with British citizens living across the EU27.

Context

In brief, the votes that week were as follows: 12thMarch, the defeat of the 2ndMeaningful Vote, 13thMarch, The Vote to reject No Deal, 14thMarch, the vote to extend Article 50.

About the respondents

  • There were 533 unique responses to the survey;
  • Although 273 responses came from British citizens living in France, there were also responses from British citizens living in most other EU27 countries;
  • The age of respondents ranged from 18-65+;
  • The respondents included both remain and leave supporters.

What did the votes in the House of Commons (w/c 11thMarch) mean to British citizens living in the EU27?

When asked to rate the importance of votes in the House of Commons for themselves and their lives in the EU-27, nearly 90% of those taking part in the survey responded that this was extremely (72.4%) or very important (17.5%).

When asked to what extent they were satisfied that UK parliament had voted to take No Deal off the table, 57.6% responded that they were extremely satisfied, while 20.8% responded that they were satisfied. This points to broader anxieties about what No Deal would mean for their lives, that have been also partly allayed by EU member states stepping in and making clear statements about their no deal contingency plans.

When asked whether they were satisfied that MPs had voted to extend Article 50, 35.6% responded that they were extremely satisfied, while 29.6% responded to say that they were satisfied.

Beyond their thoughts on the outcomes of the individual votes, it is clear that respondents had mixed emotions. This is clearly illustrated by their responses when we asked them to list three words that explained their feelings about the outcome of the series of votes. The table below summarises the frequency of the top five responses.

Response

Count

Weighted percentage

Hope, hopeful, hoping

96

5.89%

Frustrated, frustrating, frustration

78

4.78%

Confused, confusing, confusion

72

4.41%

Relieved, relief

54

3.31%

Worried, worry, worrying

50

3.07%

The word cloud below captures these in terms of their frequency:

It was common with responses for emotions that communicated hope or relief to be listed alongside those that communicated continued concern, frustration, uncertainty and worry. The final question on the survey which asked people to provide further detail about what the outcomes of the vote meant to and for respondents further confirmed this:

More uncertainty. More duplicity. More anxiety.

Just more hope followed by more despair at how useless they are.

It may give us more time, or we may still crash out. I feel uncertain. I do services and this affects my business. We can’t plan and I feel angry. Every day I wake up angry and I have little faith in Westminster.

Beyond the political stakes of Brexit

A large number of responses to this final question elaborated political positions in relation to Brexit. Responses included comments that communicated that

  • this set of votes had been undemocratic, a demonstration that parliament remained out of touch with the British public:

We’ve had a People’s vote – we voted to leave. Article 50 gives us the right to leave with No Deal; the Govt. had NO right to remove this. It’s written in law. Parliament serves us, not themselves.

  • hope that this would mean an end to Brexit;
  • a sense that the British government had eroded any trust that the British population had in them

The little faith that the general public had in politicians is ebbing away as they seem singularly incapable of managing this mess.

An overwhelming number of responses also drew attention to a key concern that we have registered among British citizens living in the EU27 previously: that those disenfranchised by the 15-year rule felt that they should have been permitted a right to vote in the referendum. This signaled to many of them that the British government did not care for British citizens who lived abroad. Likely, this sense has been exacerbated since by the fact that proceedings have adjourned on the Private Members Bill that would have seen this vote extended to a vote for life.

As one respondent elaborated:

The government has constantly betrayed us Brits abroad, and indeed our whole country … Whatever happens in the coming months, the country I knew and loved and was so proud of is gone.

What also clearly came across in these responses, and which similarly accords to our findings elsewhere in the project was how Brexit had intervened in their feelings towards Britain and being British.

But beyond these thoughts, there were a number of responses that revealed the different personal stakes of Brexit, and practical concerns about how they would be able to continue living their lives as before.

These particularly communicated the impacts of prolonged uncertainty on people’s health and wellbeing as people described how prolonged uncertainty about what Brexit would mean for them had had a negative impact on their mental health. Others using this space to question whether they would continue to have access to healthcare, what this would mean for their pensions (given fluctuations in the exchange rate).

Conclusion

Two years on from Article 50, and despite the agreements over citizens’ rights, people are still having to ask these questions. This signals how no one part of the process can be separated out from the rest. After all, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But it also signals the human cost and impact of Brexit. In the research, it has become very clear to us that Brexit will have uneven outcomes for British citizens living in the EU27. This will depend on their individual circumstances. In other words, there are very different personal stakes in Brexit. The responses to the survey can only capture these in part.

Through the broader research of which the survey is part, the message is coming out loud and clear that even though Britain has not yet left the EU, there have already been impacts for the lives of some of those living in the EU27. But further, it is also clear that these impacts are being differentially felt and experienced. It is important to understand who can afford for Brexit to be political and for whom it has personal stakes and outcomes.

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