How many Brits actually live in the EU?

British expats face uncertain future if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is rejected

More than 300,000 Brits call Spain home
(Image credit: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Two and half years on from the EU referendum, Britons living in other EU countries face the prospect of losing their future rights and legal status if Theresa May's Brexit deal is rejected by MPs this week.

The latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics suggests 784,900 British citizens currently live in another EU country, excluding Ireland, although most estimates put this number much higher at around 1.5 million.

The phrase “Brits aboard” conjures up images of retirees enjoying the sun, “but the reality is far more complex and even something of a puzzle” says Dr Michaela Benson on the BBC.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Nearly three-quarters are aged 64 or under. “Those living and working overseas for a relatively short period of time - often younger workers - are undercounted” says Benson, meaning the real figure could be as high as 2.25 million.

The research leader for the BrExpats project at Goldsmiths, University of London, says “it raises the possibility that we don't know how many people there are whose lives abroad will be affected by Brexit - or who they are”.

Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with Brussels grants continued residency and social security rights for both the three million EU citizens living in the UK and Brits living on the continent, as well as securing freedom of movement during the planned transition period.

Yet few expect MPs to vote through the deal when it comes before the Commons on Tuesday.

Predictions about the size of the government’s defeat reported in the Sunday papers range from 100 to 200 votes. “No. 10 has been trying to manage expectations about Tuesday’s vote by claiming that any defeat by fewer than 100 votes would be counted as a good result,” the Mail on Sunday wrote.

While strongly opposed by a majority of MPs, this nevertheless significantly raises the chance of Britain crashing out without a deal on 29 March; a nightmare scenario that could immediately impact healthcare, social security and pensions for British citizens living in the EU.

In advance of the Commons vote, The Guardian reports “some of the estimated 1.3 million British citizens living elsewhere in the EU worry they will lose their livelihoods because they will no longer be able to work across more than one country, or their professional qualifications may no longer be recognised”.

“Others fear they will have to refocus and rebuild businesses they have built up over decades, or are concerned they will not now be able to look after ageing parents in the UK. Emotionally, many feel a part of their identity is being amputated” says the paper.

The European Commission claims it is “putting citizens’ rights first” in its Contingency Action Plan for a no deal scenario, “but the level of detail in the document’s 12 pages is inevitably bare compared to the near 600-page Withdrawal Agreement” says Euronews.

“Despite the good intentions on all sides, a no-deal Brexit would mean citizens’ rights would no longer be protected at European level and instead be dealt with by individual nations”, says the news site.

According to the Daily Express, “the first EU country to promise British citizens living on its soil will retain their full rights even in case of a no deal has been Italy”.

Approximately 65,000 Britons living there will continue to have the right to work and live in the country even if May's deal is voted down by MPs.

British in Italy, the association representing Britons living in the Mediterranean country, said in a statement: “Our worst fears vanished.”

Other EU countries have since followed suit.

The Netherlands has said it wants to give the 45,000 Britons living there a 15-month deadline to apply for a permanent residence request in the event of a no deal.

Similarly, the Czech government will soon vote on a bill granting to the 8,000 Brits living in the state the same rights as any other EU citizen until the end of 2020.

Spain and France, which are home to 310,000 and 150,000 Britons respectively, have both moved to guarantee the current rights enjoyed by British citizens will be extended beyond 29 March whatever happens.

Germany will exempt UK citizens from having to have a residency title for three months in the event of a no deal.

“Austria has on the other hand taken a tougher stance on the issue of Britons’ rights” says the Express, which reports the 25,000 UK-passport holders living in the country “are facing the loss of their residence permits in the event of a no deal Brexit, unless the country introduces a special legal regime for them - an option the Austrian Government hasn’t yet ruled out”.

“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,” writes Benson.

“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,” she adds.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.