'Uncertainty reigns' for UK workers in EU

Despite a lack of official statistics, research suggests significant numbers of mobile young British expats working across Europe with no clarity as to their long term status.

Young professional leaving train
With Brexit little more than two months away, nobody still really knows how many British expats live and work in the European Union, according to a London-based academic.

No clear statistics on how many UK citizens live in other EU countries

Dr Michaela Benson, research leader for the BrExpats project at Goldsmiths, University of London, says that the official Whitehall estimate of 784,900 UK citizens living in other EU countries (excluding Ireland) might be only about a third of the true total.And, contrary to commonly-held beliefs, the majority are not retirees but workers, many of them young.In an article for the BBC website, Dr Benson says the Office for National Statistics estimate of Brits abroad shows nearly three-quarters are aged 64 or below, with 70 per cent living in Spain, France and Germany.

Three-quarters of EU Brit expats aged 64 or below with majority in Spain, France and Germany

"But these figures only count those who have been in a country for more than 12 months," she says. "Those living and working overseas for a relatively short period of time - often younger workers - are undercounted. Many are seasonal workers, people on short-term contracts and students studying abroad."Even those settled abroad for a longer time can be missed, as registration is not always compulsory. For example, an official at the UK consulate in Spain said there were 'tens of thousands at least under the radar'."Dr Benson says that arriving at an accurate figure "is difficult" but, including temporary residents, those currently not registered and dual nationals, the actual total could be anywhere between a million and 2.25 million.

Little known about the profile of British expats in Europe

"The other problem with the official statistics is that they don't tell us much about who the Brits in Europe are," she adds."Knowing more about their education, the jobs they hold and their incomes could help us understand more about their lives abroad - and how they could be affected by Brexit. We have been trying to learn more through the BrExpats research project."The project has so far interviewed or surveyed more than 400 expats in France and Spain. Respondents worked in a wide variety of roles, from tourism to English language teaching, banking and higher education."Although the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU says those lawfully resident in another EU member state on December 31 2020 will have their rights upheld, many are nervous," says Dr Benson.

Mobility in industries such as academia more at risk from Brexit

"For example, there were worries among some on fixed-term contracts coming to an end before they qualify for permanent legal status. Some were concerned that without status as EU citizens, no employer would take them on."One sector in which this is a particular problem is academic research, as it is common for researchers to move around Europe on contracts of two or three years. It is also difficult to demonstrate continuous residence for those in hospitality and tourism, a sector of seasonal work demanding high levels of flexibility from workers."And we don't know how many workers depend upon travelling across EU borders for their work. This could be a problem for those in jobs which take them to more than one country."Dr Benson says that, for many British expats in the EU, their lives have been made possible by the rights to freedom of movement. "But many now wonder whether they will be able to remain once the UK leaves," she says."Many of these Britons are used to job markets that demand they are enterprising and flexible. Some of those we spoke to for the BrExpats project appear to be quite sanguine about the future - believing that they can adjust to the circumstances of Brexit."But the one thing they all are waiting for is a little more certainty about exactly what the UK's exit from the EU means for them."Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online DirectorySubscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all of the international assignments and global mobility news.