A place to call home: How the Brexit vote has left Europeans in Scotland feeling lost

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 6 July 2017 in Inside Politics

"You feel a bit homeless, that’s kind of what I’m feeling" - How European citizens living in Scotland have reacted to the vote to leave the EU

Image credit: Migrants Scotland

Like most Glaswegians, Paulina is pretty proud of her city – even the ugly bits.

“I love Glasgow”, she says. “The thing about Glasgow is, when it’s lovely, it’s lovely, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I like that roughness of it as well, if you know what I mean. I don’t like very pretty places because I think they’re delusional, like you’re in a bubble. So I like how Glasgow is ugly as well.”

Originally from Poland, she moved to the UK in 2004. After a few years in London she came to Glasgow to visit and fell in love with the city.

“I love Scotland profoundly. I came up to Glasgow to visit and I just felt that it was the place for me. It felt familiar, like home.”


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Paulina’s husband is Scottish and their baby was born last year. But despite her love for the country, she says the Brexit vote and the associated fall out is making her question her plans to stay in Scotland.

“My baby was born the year of the referendum – she’s a Brexit baby. It has definitely changed things. I had an unreserved love for Scotland and now it feels, post Brexit vote – I would say it’s like we are on the break.

“As a unit me and my husband we are considering other places. We are looking into options. There is a natural appeal to Ireland, or possibly New Zealand. Equally we were considering staying in Scotland itself, but moving away from the chaos of reality at the moment, maybe Shetland.

“I didn’t think it was going to affect me that much, I’m very resilient person, but it did affect me horribly. It is quite heart-breaking in that respect. Of course you can get by and live but it changed my view of this country. I said to my husband, I need to find a reason to fall in love with this country again, because I don’t need to be here – I chose to be here.”

“You feel a bit homeless, that’s kind of what I’m feeling. Where do I actually belong? I don’t want to get back to my own country. Due to things that are happening there, I can’t imagine going back to Poland… Nothing is fine. That is Brexit.”

This feeling seems to be shared by Europeans across Scotland. Maria, from Greece, says her plans will depend on what the vote means for her work. She came to Scotland with her partner around seven years ago. They lived in Glasgow for three years and have lived in Edinburgh since.

She told Holyrood: “Most things still haven’t settled down – they are still trying to negotiate and so we will see what happens, but for us there is no reason to leave.”

“We like it here, and I wouldn’t like to move anywhere else. But it all depends and there will be massive change coming up. If it doesn’t affect our work then fine. Otherwise, we will see.”

Yet, with negotiations only just getting started, and with the Prime Minister insisting that the future of the 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK will be a point for debate, Europeans living and working in Scotland still have no concrete idea of what the future will hold.

Under plans outlined by Theresa May last week, EU nationals lawfully resident in the UK for at least five years would be able to apply for “settled status” and be able to bring over spouses and children. Those who arrived later, after an unspecified date, will have two years to "regularise their status" but with no guarantees.

Describing her offer as "fair and serious", May said it would help “put anxiety to rest”. EU negotiators, however, seemed less than impressed, particularly given the bloc had already proposed to guarantee all British citizens’ rights in the EU and provide continued freedom of movement, which will allow UK citizens to cross borders to work or to retire in another EU country.

The deal came under criticism from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He said: “This isn't a generous offer. This is confirmation the government is prepared to use people as bargaining chips."

Scottish Brexit minister Mike Russell was equally unimpressed. He said: “It is intolerable that it has taken a year for the UK Government to bring forward proposals to safeguard the rights of EU citizens, who have been left in a huge amount of uncertainty about their future rights and status. Human beings should not be used as bargaining chips in intergovernmental negotiations.”

And so, a year on, the uncertainty hanging over people’s lives continues. Federico moved from Italy to Scotland in November 2015 after being offered a job at a financial group. But after six months they closed their Scottish office. Although he is unsure whether it was a direct consequence of the leave vote, he feels the decision was connected.

“I was very disappointed. I applied for other jobs but with only six months of experience here I couldn’t find much. I was bar tending and waiting and did some catering jobs, just to pay the bills. I had just started living with my girlfriend, and the Brexit vote changed everything, because she was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stay in Edinburgh. She is English, and moved here two years ago to work for the NHS. So I wasn’t working, or didn’t have a permanent contract, and it was really bad. I was struggling to make it to the end of the month and if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend I would probably have left.”

Federico says he loves living in Edinburgh. “It is a wonderful place to live. I am a foodie and the food is amazing here. The seafood is amazing – the fish – and also the meat. The quality of life is so high that whenever I travel around Britain I complain and say ‘I can’t wait to go home’.”

Yet the vote definitely effected him personally. “I remember clearly one day a pub I was working for called me and they told me I had lost my job. My girlfriend was very upset. She became really afraid that I would have to leave and that was hard. I could see how this whole environment post-Brexit, with all the politicians taking nonsense on TV, created this really bad atmosphere. It was directly affecting my quality of life. I knew Brexit would take at least two years in the best case scenario, but was always worrying about what would happen. I couldn’t make any medium or long-term plans with my girlfriend, and it was just awful.”

Meanwhile, a new report from Deloitte found that 47 per cent of highly skilled workers from the EU are considering leaving the UK in the next five years.

In a survey of 2,242 EU and non-EU workers, half living in the UK and half living outside, the firm found that 36 per cent of non-British workers in the UK said they were thinking of leaving in the next five years, with 26 per cent saying they were considering leaving within three.

David Sproul, chief executive of Deloitte north-west Europe, said: “Overseas workers, especially those from the EU, tell us they are more likely to leave the UK than before. That points to a short- to medium-term skills deficit that can be met in part by upskilling our domestic workforce but which would also benefit from an immigration system that is attuned to the needs of the economy.”

It is these concerns which have fuelled calls for Scotland to create a differentiated immigration system to the rest of the UK.

The difficulty, according to a new report from the University of Edinburgh, is that the systems most suited to Scotland’s needs may be the hardest to sell politically.

The report, Scotland's Immigration Policy After Brexit, examined four options for differentiated immigration systems. Professor Christina Boswell, one of the authors, told Holyrood: “We don’t want to recommend a particular scheme, we just wanted to provide a tool for analysing the different implications of the separate systems. Actually, what came out of the exercise is that there isn’t a clear argument for one of the schemes over the others, but they score differently depending on the different criteria.”

The report concluded that a points-based system would offer the greatest flexibility in attracting potential immigrants – for example based on priorities such as attracting young people or families – to help meet Scotland’s long term demographic needs.

Boswell said: “We can see looking at Australia and Canada that if they are well managed then those systems provide an excellent tool. They are dynamic and flexible in allowing a government to select the immigrants it needs. However it would imply quite a substantial institutional and cultural shift if we were to adopt that kind of system.”

“These types of systems are premised on really rigorous front end selection processes, but once people enter that is pretty much it. They are granted permanent settlement, generally from the outset, with a very swift route towards citizenship. There are not restrictions on what job they can do, on access to welfare or social services.”

But given public perceptions of immigration – whether they are based on fact or myth – a points-based system, in which migrants received full access to welfare and social services, may be the hardest to sell to the public.

She said: “You can imagine that if you introduced a scheme where people had immediate access to the full range of welfare services that would provoke a certain amount of controversy. Plus there is an enforcement issue – typically in these systems people have rights of mobility across the country. In the Australian system there is a requirement that you stay for two years in the region that recruited you, but after those two years you can move onto other parts of the country. In the Canadian system there is no requirement that you stay in that particular state or province for two years. They try to encourage people to stay, but they can’t guarantee it, so you can imagine that these kinds of schemes would raise concerns about onward movement to the rest of the UK. There is also the issue about numbers – if Scotland is introducing a system which implies an increase in net migration in aggregate UK statistics, then that is not going to go down particularly well with the Home Office or the UK Government.”

Another option would be to make smaller adjustments to the current immigration system to meet skills and labour shortages, such as adjusting current Tier 2 schemes to allow lower skills or salary thresholds for Scottish employers, or reintroducing a post-study work scheme.

But while negotiations continue, a group of European citizens in Edinburgh decided to take matters into their own hands, forming campaign group Migrants Scotland in the wake of the Brexit vote in an attempt to celebrate the contributions of migrants to Scotland, and help make sure their voices are not ignored.

The group formed on the back of One Day Without Us, a UK-wide day of action aimed at combating rising levels of xenophobia following the Brexit vote.

Uta, a volunteer with the group, told Holyrood: “One Day Without Us was initially meant to be a general strike by immigrants. That wasn’t possible – there is no union of immigrants – and it wasn’t possible for people just to walk out of their jobs, the risk was too great. So we decided to make it a celebration of immigrant’s participation. We had music and speakers – a few foreign born musicians gave up their time. It was very positive and we decided we didn’t want that energy to die, we wanted it to continue, and so migrant.scot was born.”

Different volunteers brought different skills, with one member, Pawel, setting up the site, including a listing of candidates for the local authority elections, to help people get information. Moving forward they plan to organise a multi-cultural festival in the autumn, featuring music and food with the hope of bringing people together.

Pawel came from Poland to visit Scotland 12 years ago, fell in love with Edinburgh and then never left. He worked in kitchens and hospitals, then started studying. He finished college, then undergrad, and eventually he was awarded a doctorate in computer science. “I ended up with the job of my dreams, I’ve been in it for four years now. It feels like everything I have ever done came together. It’s a wonderful feeling, like being home, and like the people around you are your family.

“I bought a flat last year, and got my keys a day before the Brexit vote. So you can imagine how I felt [after the result], because I wouldn’t have bought it if I had known.

Moving to Scotland in 1988 after leaving school, Almuth, another member of Migrants Scotland, has spent her entire adult life in the country. “I feel Scottish. I don’t have any links to Germany at all. I have been to Germany a couple of times in the last ten years but just as a holiday. My husband is British and my two teenage children too. So to suddenly find myself defined as a foreigner, as a migrant, has been a very strange experience. In fact the only reason I didn’t apply for a UK passport when it would have been easy – because it is not straightforward now and may not be possible – is because I felt Scottish and not British. Now I am a foreigner in my own country. It is disconcerting.”

She adds: “Although most of us are EU nationals, we don’t want this to be just about the rights of EU nationals. What we want to do is bring together different migrant communities, ethnic minorities and people who support migrant rights in general. It is about bringing communities and groups together.”

Uta nods. “Sometimes migrants compare different groups among each other, like there’s some caste system. There’s always someone who thinks they are a better migrant than someone else, and right at the bottom you have the most recent asylum seekers. I think this whole drama, which has knocked a few very privileged people off their perch, could have a positive side-effect, by creating a sense of solidarity, because there is nothing more sobering than having the basis of your privilege called into question overnight. Walking around Europe with a European passport is an enormous privilege.”

Also from Germany, Uta moved to Scotland in 1997. “I left college then legged it to Scotland with a backpack. I came to be a cabinet maker and felt incredibly supported and welcomed. I couldn’t believe the openness and generosity of this society. It was like a dream. I had a child and then found myself, as a poor single mum, starting from scratch. Eventually I started my shop and I was proud of what I achieved. My son is Scottish – he has informed me that if I have to leave he is staying here. If I had to leave I would lose my business, my social surroundings, my son, and I don’t know how I could possibly ask my partner to come with me – he loves his job, speaks no other language, and has children from a previous relationship here.”

“I would go home a beggar with no family. I don’t want to say I wasted 20 years of my life but sometimes I feel like that. I have had a great life, and this country made that possible.”

Pawel says he never did anything political before Brexit. “It was the morning of Brexit, which I spent crying, that I thought, ‘this is broken, and I need to do something about it’. It was a moment when I thought, I never want to feel like this ever again. It was like having a really bad breakup.”

This theme comes up again and again with Europeans describing their feeling on the Brexit vote. Time and again UK politicians talk about the Brexit process in terms of divorce – of the UK and the EU separating. But for Europeans in Scotland, the sense is different. This is not the UK breaking up with the EU – it is the UK breaking up with them.

As Paulina puts it, back in Glasgow: “Things are now a little bit more complicated. It’s adding complexities to our mutual relationship, between me and Scotland. We need to think what we’re going to do – how we’re going to patch it up.”

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