Remarkable timing for our Brexit and EU migration debate

April 4, 2017     Leave a Comment

Welfare Conditionality Project impact officer Janis Bright reports on last week’s joint event with the EU Rights Project, titled ‘Brexit: what welfare, what rights for EU migrants in Britain?’

The date – 29 March – was certainly memorable. On the same day that Prime Minister Theresa May initiated Britain’s exit from the EU, our event in York debated the welfare and rights of those EU citizens already here in the UK. It was clear that many participants in our event were concerned with the treatment of EU migrants under the current rules and practice: so what would the future hold?

First, how did we get to the current situation? Two of our speakers presented fascinating and varied analyses of last June’s Brexit vote. Dave Innes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation linked the ‘leave’ result to the geography of poverty and low qualifications. The referendum highlighted social and economic divides that need to be healed, he said.

Dr Sofia Vasilopoulou offered a contrasting view, suggesting different issues were important for leave or remain voters. And there are nuances. Across Europe, she noted, a significant minority of citizens may potentially favour a vote to leave the EU in the future. But a strong majority are in favour of ‘the free movement of EU citizens who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU’.






Presenters l-r: Charlotte O’Brien, Regina Serpa, Jed Meers, Sofia Vasilopoulou, Dave Innes


The government’s Great Repeal Bill is set to bring most EU provisions into UK law at least for the short term. But there was concern over how EU migrants will fare in terms of the welfare state, which EU member states largely continue to guard as an area of domestic policy. As several speakers explained, concerns arise not least because restrictive entitlements and practice within the UK are already causing hardship for many.

Professor Peter Dwyer and Dr Lisa Scullion from our Welfare Conditionality Project outlined findings to date from our five year study. EU migrants are caught in ‘a constellation of conditionality’, they said. Disadvantage works at the supra-national, national and micro levels, and EU migrants’ rights are likely to become more constrained and conditional.

The points were reinforced in independent welfare rights adviser Rebecca Walker’s presentation. Not only is entitlement highly restricted, she said, but the practice around the country too often leads to injustices. In addition, the UK is in the process of the long switchover to Universal Credit. The combination in 2019 of Brexit and the transfer of recipients from legacy benefits will have an as-yet unknown impact.

PhD researcher Regina Serpa added evidence from her research at the sharp end of homelessness. She found homeless EU migrants trying to exercise some form of choice within an extreme situation. Brexit could mean even greater limits on access to work and more restricted access to benefits and assistance, pushing people toward exploitation in the housing and labour markets, she argued.

The future for services to support migrants could be bleak, according to snapshot research by York Law School’s Jed Meers. He investigated uses of the European Social Fund which supports, for example, English as a second language teaching. With the Brexit clock ticking, ESF funding for these much needed and valued services could be under threat.

Finally, what can be done to protect EU citizens living in the UK? The EU Rights Project at York Law School is carrying out action research into how advisers can best support people whose rights are under challenge. Project leader Dr Charlotte O’Brien offered participants at the event the chance to input ideas that will help shape a new toolkit for welfare advisers, being published later this year.

This timely event benefited from excellent input from the many participants present. Many things about Brexit may remain unknown at this stage. But it is clear that forward thinking to mitigate the negative effects on EU migrants in Britain is underway.


Slide presentations from the ‘Brexit: what welfare, what rights for EU migrants in Britain?’ event can be viewed here. View two videos about the event and our research. This event was held jointly by the Welfare Conditionality and EU Rights research projects, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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