Feeling betrayed and bewildered after years in the UK, many EU citizens are leaving before Brexit. And some Britons are going too …
her husband, Dan, and their children. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Friday 28 July 2017 11.34 BST
Last modified on Friday 28 July 2017 13.14 BST
They are doctors, academics, small business owners and stay-at-home parents; accountants, pensioners and IT consultants. They came to Britain from Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway or France, some a few years ago, others decades earlier. Now they are leaving.
Their decisions are driven by both emotion – frustration, sorrow, anger – and hard-headed pragmatism: a conviction that, for all sorts of reasons, their families’ futures are now better secured on the continent than in Britain. There are plenty of them: a request to talk on Plan B, a Facebook group, drew 40 responses in under an hour.
“The recruitment agency said it was quite scary, the number of applications they’re now getting from EU professionals in the UK,” said Alexandros, a senior academic healthcare researcher from Greece, who is moving to Frankfurt with his German wife Heidi, a medical consultant, and their two young children.
“It’s difficult to exaggerate how sad and angry and disappointed we feel,” he said. “We came here as teenagers, thanks to free movement. We studied here, we met here, we’ve spent our whole adult lives here. We’d never thought of leaving. This was our home.”
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According to the Office for National Statistics, 117,000 EU nationals left the UK in 2016, the year of the referendum – a 36% increase on 2015. A recent Deloitte report suggested 47% of highly skilled EU27 workers in the UK were considering leaving over the next five years, uncertain about their prospects – and those of their adopted country – once Britain exits the union.
Alexandros and Heidi, who asked not to be fully identified because they have not yet told their UK employers they are leaving, had jobs within days of posting their CVs online. After living in Britain, most recently in the north-west since 1995, both will take up senior positions with a leading German hospital company, on more than double their UK salaries.
Their decision was made easier by the fact that stones were thrown through the windows of their house barely 24 hours after the referendum, and that their six-year-old daughter came home in tears after being told in the playground by a classmate that she would soon have to “go home”.
‘It has been dehumanising’: Elina Halonen, a Finnish national, chose to move to Amsterdam with her Scottish partner after 13 years in the UK. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
“I feel betrayed,” Alexandros said. “To have worked so hard here, done those 16-hour hospital shifts, and be treated like this … with spite. Made to feel you’re not valued, not wanted, not good enough for Britain. It breaks my heart, but I just want to go now. Whatever might happen, we wouldn’t stay.”
Betrayal is a word that comes up often. “It’s hard not to take it personally,” said Elina Halonen, 37, a Finn who lived in the UK for 13 years, co-founding a specialist market research firm that now employs 10 people. She moved to Amsterdam with her Scottish partner, Tane Piper, in February.
“I worked hard, paid my taxes – now it feels almost like an illusion,” she said. “Like we were never really welcome. It has all been … dehumanising. Insulting, actually.”
Equally keen to keep his EU rights and make sure they were not limiting their chances to live together, buy a home and start a family if they stayed in the UK, Piper pushed hardest for the move, which the couple made before article 50 was triggered – in case that became a cut-off date.
Others are still packing up. “It will be really hard, after 33 years,” said Hannelore Cossens, 51, a Dutch national who will spend the summer house-hunting in the Netherlands and finding a school for her youngest child, 11. She will be joined later by her husband Peter, a retired IT specialist, once their house near Lampeter in Wales has been sold.
“Our income, my husband’s pension and our investments are in pounds and worth a lot less,” she said. “But it’s worth it to me. And my husband doesn’t like his country any more. Why would I stay, be made to feel like some faceless ‘migrant’? A bit of me is dying. But I can’t stay.”
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For Sigrun Campbell, it is for the children. From Denmark, she has lived in the UK for 23 years and has three children with her husband, a “passionate remainer” who will be abandoning a “very good job” in banking to move with the family to Copenhagen.
Campbell, who lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, said she knew of four other Anglo-EU couples leaving this summer: two more to Denmark, one to Lithuania and one to France. “I can’t see it working for the kids here,” she said. “We, their parents, have lost faith in this country. I can’t see this being a great place for them to be.”
None of the dozen EU citizens interviewed for this article had previously applied for permanent residency in the UK – either because they thought they would be turned down owing to inadequate paperwork or because they simply did not see why they should have to. Nor did the “generous” offer made to them last month by Theresa May change their minds.
“Britain has changed,” said Michaela Aumüller, who after six years in Cornwall moved to Münster, Germany, in April with her British partner, Richard. “Something has been broken. Neither of us wanted to put up with the new attitude to EU nationals. There were incidents, little things, but they make such a difference.”
But the main reason, said Aumüller, was because “we don’t see our relationship being protected by UK immigration law. I’m self-supporting, I don’t have the paperwork, and if EU citizens’ rights ever become the same as non-EU citizens’ … we couldn’t be together in the UK.”
Mel Scott, a French antenatal educator, has lived in Britain since 1998. She and her husband, Dan, are moving to Le Touquet with their 10- and 11-year-old sons once their house near Crowborough in East Sussex is sold. Dan will run his IT business from France, but “it will still be a huge wrench”, she said.
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Like Ian Paterson, who hopes to join his Belgian wife Kristel, a social worker, and their nine-year-old son in Limburg in the autumn, Scott has been on an “emotional rollercoaster” since the Brexit vote. “The time before June 23 looks like some kind of ideal world now,” said Paterson, 58.
“What’s the best thing? You spend so much time trying to work it out,” he said. “Are house prices falling? How much will we have to live on? What if we decide to come back, what rights will Kristel have? Do these Brexiters ever consider how many ordinary people’s lives they have harmed?”
Brexit has even chased British couples from Britain. Sara O’Hara, 44, and her partner Doug, 41, moved to the Dordogne with their six-year-old son – and registered Doug’s landscape gardening business there – just before article 50 was triggered.
O’Hara, who has kept her job as environmental permits manager for a UK waste management firm in Dorset, said the decision had in effect been made the day after the referendum. “We were both devastated, disappointed, really confused,” she said. “We had friends and family falling out.”
Their future, and that of their son, made the move inevitable, she said. “The idea of him not being able to go wherever he wanted … It’s not been easy. But we have no regrets.”