It is fair to say that Brexit has been marked by uncertainty. From the referendum itself, with misleading and uninformative campaigns from both sides, to the negotiations we are currently witnessing, there has been a distinct lack of clarity on what a post-Brexit Britain will look like. This uncertainty is heightened for EU citizens living in the UK, whose very right to remain in the country has been the subject of an ongoing debate riddled with mixed signals.
Secretary of State Amber Rudd recently told MPs that EU nationals currently living in the UK who apply for permanent residency will be accepted “by default”. Yet this reassurance came after a leaked document from the Home Office stated that the free movement of labour would cease immediately after Brexit and all but highly-skilled workers would be deterred. The tone of the document has left many EU citizens doubtful that their lifetime rights will be secured. Already, detentions and enforced removals of EU citizens from the UK have risen sharply since the referendum.
My first worry was whether my fees would increase
European students at British universities may be at a privileged stance in relation to other EU citizens in the UK, but for them too the future seems unstable. I spoke to some at Warwick to get an insight into their experiences.
For almost all, the primary concern is financial. “My first worry [after the vote] was whether my fees would increase,” admitted Chiara Castrovillari, a final year PPE student and Italian national. EU nationals at the university currently pay the home fee of £9,000 a year, but this is likely to increase radically as they become ‘international students’, paying a rate that ranges from £18,330 to £37,290.
I’m not sure the education I’ve received at Warwick will be appreciated as much outside the UK
Alp Katalan, a Politics and International Studies student from Spain, reminds me that government loans also a play a large part in the appeal of British universities: “I think this is a huge reason why UK universities can attract top European talent who would otherwise study at universities across the continent for free or much-reduced prices.”
Would these students still have applied to study here had the vote been cast before they made the decision, with the aforementioned benefits no longer guaranteed? The replies seem to vary according to the subject of study. For Chiara, the negatives would outweigh the positives: “Having now almost finished my degree here, I realise British universities have a very specific way of doing things, and I’m not sure the education I’ve received at Warwick will be appreciated as much outside the UK. My course doesn’t even exist outside the UK!”
After the Brexit vote, my plans of pursuing a postgraduate course in the UK fell through
Yet for Yasmin Din, an English Literature student, studying in the UK would have been more difficult, but still worth it. “I would have definitely reconsidered, but because I’m studying English Literature, it would make no sense for me to go elsewhere.”
Nonetheless, the vote has impacted her plans for the future. “After the Brexit vote, my plans of pursuing a postgraduate course in the UK fell through as I started looking at options elsewhere in Europe – not only for monetary reasons but also in terms of a future career, as multinational companies seem to be shifting bases to other countries.”
Indeed, the belief that Brexit will have an adverse economic effect on Britain was shared by most of the students to which I spoke. “I think the UK will struggle to maintain an influential role in the global economy in the decades to come in light of rising powers like China and India, whereas other European countries will stick together to maintain their influence,” argued Alp.
We’re a little more sceptical as to whether the UK is as inclusive and progressive as we previously thought
After Brexit, the UK is likely to leave the single market, which ensures free trade among European nations. Remainers argue that this will drive business away from Britain, but Brexiteers contest that it will give the country freedom to negotiate new trade deals internationally. Whether or not either of these is the case is yet to be seen.
I ask the students what impact they believe the Brexit vote to have had on their country, on their perception of either the EU or the UK. “I think like most other EU countries, Italy didn’t want the UK to leave, so I guess Italians’ perception of the UK right now is a bit more negative,” says Bea Aragone, an Italian national reading English and Creative Writing at Warwick. “Maybe we’re a little more sceptical as to whether the UK is as inclusive and progressive as we previously thought,” adds Chiara.
I think issues like sovereignty played second fiddle to immigration in most voters’ minds
Indeed, among the students to which I spoke, the consensus is that the principal motive behind the Leave vote was immigration. “A lot of the negative campaign rhetoric was focused on how the EU is trying to impose refugee quotas on Britain, false claims that Turkey was about to join the EU, and ‘controlling our borders’,” says Alp. “I think issues like sovereignty played second fiddle to immigration in most voters’ minds.”
Does this seeming aversion to immigration among the British public make European students feel less welcome or safe here?
“No, because thankfully university has been a really welcoming environment,” says Bea. “But I am aware of hate crimes that happened after Brexit, so I know that other people do feel more unsafe.” Alp echoes this: “I have never faced backlash for being Spanish, but since the vote I have only been in international bubbles – such as the University and London. The general rise in xenophobic acts across the country since the vote are still very worrying though.”
I was told ‘in England you speak English’ when speaking Portuguese to my friends at a bar
For Yasmin, the xenophobia has been closer to home. “I haven’t felt unsafe but I have definitely felt unwelcome. For instance, I was told that ‘in England you speak English’ when talking in Portuguese to my friends whilst at a bar. It’s definitely an uncomfortable experience to have.”
According to a Home Office report, police recorded a 41% increase in racially or religiously aggravated crimes following the EU referendum. While there is no evidence to prove this is a consequence of Brexit, the anti-immigration rhetoric employed by the Leave campaign is certainly likely to have fuelled xenophobic sentiment.
The vote shocked me because most of the English people I knew were really vocal about voting remain
Generally, however, European students seem to be aware that this sentiment is only present among a section of the British population, and that many remain in favour of both the EU and the free movement of people.
Precisely because of this, many of the students met the results of the referendum with shock: “the vote shocked me because most of the English people I knew were really vocal about voting remain,” confesses Bea. Indeed, 48% of the British public voted to remain, with the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland choosing to stay.
And how do European students think Britain is handling the negotiations? “Horribly,” asserts Alp. “From the one side, there is –at least publicly– complete unity between the different EU organs as well as from the member states. On the other side, there is not even agreement within the UK cabinet on what they want out of the negotiations.” Chiara agrees, though she is a little more sceptical regarding the effectiveness of other member states: “It’s unfortunate that it’s still so unclear what the nature of relationships between the UK and the EU will be like. I think Theresa May could be clearer regarding her intentions and give the public some specifics. On the other hand, I’m sure the other member countries aren’t making it easier.”
Brexit has raised the question of whether I would like to stay in a country where the majority does not want me
It is clear that while university students from the EU are unlikely to have been as affected by the referendum as other European nationals, they do now find themselves in a precarious position. Alp admits that Brexit “has raised the question of whether I would like to stay in a country where the majority does not want me.”
Despite this, the students I spoke to still show a desire for Britain and Europe to continue working together. When asked whether they believed Britain should be allowed to continue participating in Eurovision, the song contest that attracts millions of viewers every year, the consensus was that they should. “Sure, British people seem to love it!” said Chiara.