What are British expats in Vienna saying about the potential impact of Brexit?
These are trying times for the EU: with thousands of refugees straining the capacity to help, old alliances are threatened and tempers are frayed. At the same time, European solidarity is being tested from within.
Across the EU, everyone has a wary eye on the upcoming UK referendum (June 23), deciding whether Britain should remain a member of the EU or go it alone. Those in favor of “Brexit” worry that the UK has lost its sovereignty to the Brussels Bureaucrats, that the EU takes more in fees than it returns and – through its commitment to internal mobility, puts an undue strain on the UK’s social services by allowing migrants to qualify for British benefits. This fear has been exacerbated by the current refugee crisis. So far Britain has taken almost no refugees, however Brexit supporters worry the EU may require them to do so, which may further burden Britain’s budget and national security.
Opponents point to the benefits of EU membership, most importantly free trade and financial services within the union, but also to the fact that the UK’s international position is enhanced by its EU membership. An island nation of 60 million has nothing like the bargaining power of a continent whose population topping 500 million, and GDP of €13 trillion both exceed those of the USA. Since the referendum was announced, the pound sterling has taken a beating and Moody’s is threatening to lower the UK’s credit rating. Many Brexit opponents argue that immigration to Britain is a boon to its economy rather than a burden – most immigrants collect very little of the benefits to which they are entitled – and their contributions helps to prop up the social service systems. According to a 2014 article in the Economist, immigrants made a net contribution of over £4 billion (€5.2 billion) between 1995 and 2011 – for the native born, it was the reverse, a drain of £591 billion (€765 billion). For the new arrivals from Eastern Europe since 2000, it was a net contribution of almost £5 billion (€6.5 billion).
The potential impact of Brexit on British citizens living abroad in the EU is especially acute. To find out why, we asked some local UK expats – some of them METROPOLE contributors – living and working here in Vienna. Although domestic polling in Britain is showing a dead heat, our own (very unscientific) sample makes it clear that the majority of “Brexpats” want to stay in the EU.
Rights to work and benefits in UK and abroad
Contrary to claims by Brexit supporters, UK citizens drawing unemployment benefits in nine wealthier EU countries – many of which offer more generous support – outnumber the number of claimants from those countries in the UK, according to an analysis in The Guardian. In Austria’s case the ratio is 3:1. Although 65,000 EU nationals are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the UK, as many Brits are seeking benefits abroad.
If, as a result of Brexit, other EU citizens are denied the right to work and draw benefits in the UK, it seems that the opposite would go into effect as well. Where does this leave British citizens living in Austria?
Wishing to remain anonymous, D., who has lived abroad more than 25 years, argues against Brexit on strictly moral terms: “We are human and each of us deserves the right to live in peace, work and earn enough to provide for ourselves, to be protected if for some reason we are unable to work and provide for ourselves, etc.” However, having been abroad so long, D. would not be entitled to receive any social benefits in the UK if he chose to return.
John Newman, a translator working in Vienna since 2008, isn’t worried that Britain’s leaving the EU would mean his sudden repatriation, but he “would indeed worry about what would happen to the UK pension I spent 18 years paying” if he remains abroad.
Experienced manager Paul McDonnell is nevertheless “currently unemployed … and [I] receive some benefits from the Austrian Government.” As he considers having to move back to the UK, by choice or by necessity, he wonders “will I also lose entitlement to any benefits or pension in my home country; given that I have lived outside of the UK for over 25 years?”
Pro-exit Laura Danner works as a freelance translator and has never paid into either country’s pension system, so she personally has little at stake: “If Britain were really to leave I can imagine that some sort of ‘exchange agreement’ could be reached regarding the respective pensions and residency rights of Britons already living long-term abroad and EU nationals already living long-term in Britain.”
If Britain voted to leave – bravo! I might move back!
– Laura Danner
Fear mongering, on both sides
Danner added that “if Britain (or any other nation) wishes to regain its sovereignty and independence, it should close its ears to all the predictable fear-mongering and vote to exit. If Britain voted to leave – bravo! I might move back!” She believes the EU has “long ceased to be a purely economic union, and has become a tyrannical super-administration run by unelected bureaucrats, who daily devise more laws and regulations to bind and bleed the people.” [Editor’s note: for the record, EU parliamentarians are indeed democratically elected positions]
Though Danner is no fan of London Mayor Boris Johnson, her negative views on the EU the influential conservative politician’s recent pro-Brexit campaign. Though Johnson’s stance may tip the opinions of domestic Brits, his views are largely unpopular among British expats.
At first he considered not voting in the referendum, but after hearing Johnson’s support of Brexit, Mark Hinckley is now adamant he will vote against it. A co-founder of an independent advertising agency in Vienna, he compares Johnson to US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Hinckley believes Johnson is “another wall-mongering nincompoop,” whose wall is not for the Mexican border but rather an “emotional wall of scones and jam for the British isles.”
Impact on families
Hinckley sees such a wall having only a short-term effect on himself, but wonders whether his children will become “disconnected with the UK” in the long run.
Michael Bailey has settled in Austria for 16 years, but he’s “proud of my heritage and origins and would not wish to surrender my British citizenship unless necessary to secure the existence of my family. The impact will be greater for my (unborn) children … If they are born British (in Austria), they may need to naturalise as Austrians” to get EU status.
Musician Andrew Charlewood predicts “you will see a lot of UK citizens getting married to their EU-based partners if the UK do leave!”
But what about this anonymous METROPOLE contributor, who’s married to an American citizen? “The ease with which Brits can travel and seek employment on the continent …was the main reasoning for us moving here [allowing me] to work immediately. Who knows how quickly the fallout from a ‘Leave’ vote would begin to be felt on the ground, but I’d say that, when it did, it’s more than likely that we’d move back to either the UK or the US.”
METROPOLE contributor Tristan Bath believes that “families comprising many nationalities, many ethnicities, and many ways of life, are most definitely the future for us all. Why put up barriers against this?”
Impact on transnational businesses
Bath is relatively new to Vienna and works mostly in the online and digital world, so he doesn’t fear being unable to continue his work in the event of Brexit. But he worries that “it would be something of a closed door to my Austrian partner should we ever want to return to the UK. And why wouldn’t they want two young qualified workers to come back and live in the UK, both with degrees from London universities”
Impact on Voting rights
British Expats who have lived longer than 15 years outside of their native country may not eligible to vote in the referendum (see this Metropole post by the UK’s Ambassador to Austria about how expats in Austria can register).
Despite having permanent residency status in Austria, Michael Bailey’s biggest fear it that his democratic rights will be further weakened: “I can’t vote in the UK any longer, and my voting in Austria is restricted to local and European elections, both rights I will lose if the UK leaves the EU.”
There are plenty of things about Vienna I don’t like, but [voting against Brexit] is a no-brainer.
– Max Feldman
Impact on studying abroad
METROPOLE contributor Max Feldman is enjoying the free tuition and exceptional professors at Austrian universities. If he had to finish his PhD studies in the UK, the “four years of tuition plus living expenses (without funding, which is hard to come by) comes to a best-case-scenario minimum of about £64,000.” He added “there are plenty of things about Vienna I don’t like, but [voting against Brexit] is a no-brainer.”
What can be done?
Like many others, Charlewood thinks that the referendum is really just leverage for the UK government to re-negotiate the terms of its EU membership: “negotiations are going well so perhaps it will all blow over for us expats.”
Others are not so sure and, beyond casting their absentee ballots, will be advocating for a Stay vote through personal influence, business contacts, or outright lobbying.
Michael Bailey is concerned that “people in [particularly rural] parts of the UK that do not have such close links to Europe… see Europe as merely meddling in politics unnecessarily…and they may be mobilised to vote for Brexit.” British citizens living abroad must raise their voices in any way possible and let their compatriots know where they stand.
Let your voice be heard!
We therefore invite you to share your relevant thoughts and opinions with us! Post a comment below, on our Facebook page or drop us an e-mail! Share your ideas for mobilizing support for or against Brexit with your fellow Brexpats!
[this article, originally published on February 28, 2016, was edited and updated on March 5, 2016]