Press release

Uncertainty leads to emigration

WZB study finds migration from the UK to Europe to have surged since the Brexit vote

The Brexit vote has led to a massive increase of British citizens emigrating to European Union countries. Since the 2016 referendum, that increase has amounted to around 17,000 persons per year, or 30 percent more compared to the years 2008 to 2015. These are findings from a new study co-authored by Daniel Auer of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Daniel Tetlow of the “Oxford in Berlin” research group. Their analysis is the first to describe the collective processes driving individual migration decisions.

According to the two researchers, uncertainty about the economic and social situation in the UK is the main reason for many Britons to leave their home country. By emigrating to continental Europe, UK citizens seek to improve their economic and social future. At the same time, those who already live abroad in Europe try to secure their situation by becoming naturalized citizens in their country of residence, especially because future residency rights for UK citizens in the EU-27 have yet to be fully clarified. The number of British citizens securing an EU-27 passport has increased by more than 500 percent across the entire EU since 2016; in Germany, that increase has even exceeded 2,000 percent. For many Britons, this is a way to mitigate future restrictions in terms of the freedom of movement and residence. Since the referendum, 31,600 Britons have signed up for German citizenship—nearly one-third of all British citizens living in Germany. In terms of naturalization rates in Germany, the UK is now second after Turkey, ahead of Poland and Romania. “The growth rates in migration and naturalization figures are at a level previously seen only in the wake of major economic or political crises,” says WZB researcher Daniel Auer.

To learn more about what motivates people to leave the UK, the two authors supplemented the figures drawn from official migration statistics with qualitative interviews of 46 Britons who immigrated to Germany between 2007 and 2019. Based on these interviews, the referendum’s direct impact on individual migration decisions is clear: The decision to migrate was sometimes made on the spur of the moment, under the impression of a major crisis and much uncertainty regarding the future. As a consequence, the time that passed between the decision to emigrate and actual emigration shortened from around 12 months to a few weeks, with people generally being more prepared to take risks. Twice as many respondents who left the UK after the Brexit referendum said they were taking a “major risk” (57% compared to 24% pre-Brexit). Two-thirds were prepared to accept a loss of income resulting from the move; many arrived in Germany without a job. Moreover, one in three respondents said the Brexit vote had a direct impact on their mental health, sometimes triggering depressions. At the same time, the researchers observe a growing willingness among respondents to integrate into German society. British immigrants now make a stronger effort to learn German and engage with society.

“As a result of Brexit, the UK is losing a growing number of highly educated people prepared to make a heavy investment to become part of continental Europe and stay in the long term,” says co-author Daniel Tetlow, summarizing the findings from the interviews.

The study was published as a WZB Discussion Paper (SP VI 2020-102) under the title Brexit, Collective Uncertainty and Migration Decisions.