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Evidence to Policy

How Brexit impacts families in the UK

Professor Jane Falkingham OBE
Professor Jane Falkingham OBE

Relative to the British-born population, the percentage of EU-nationals in the total UK population is low. Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of Europe-born individuals living within bi-national partnerships with or without dependent children. The outcome of the referendum and the outcome of current policy discussions about the future of EU nationals in the UK could have significant implications not only for skilled workers currently living and working in the UK, but also for the future status of partners and children in bi-national partnerships.

How common are bi-national partnerships in the UK? To answer this question, we analysed data from the 2011 census in England and Wales. Overall, we compiled data from 2 million individuals.

The majority of the population of England and Wales (more than 86 per cent) were born in the UK, with a small minority (4.3 per cent of men and about 4.7 per cent of women) born in other EU countries. This equates to 2,509,900 individuals born elsewhere in the EU who were living in England & Wales in 2011. Among those who report being legally married or partnered, 56 per cent are nationals of the so-called old EU (member states before 2004) and only 15 per cent are nationals of so-called new EU countries (2004 and 2007 Accession countries ).

'Family' by Kat Grigg
'Family' by Kat Grigg CC BY 2.0

In terms of bi-national partnerships, a slightly lower proportion of Old-EU men (50 per cent) compared to Old-EU women (60 per cent) were partnered with a British-born individual. Only 10 per cent of New-EU men and 19 per cent of New-EU women were partnered with a British-born individual, which may partly reflect that nationals from New-EU countries have had a shorter period of time in the UK during which to form a partnership.

Many of the bi-national couples in the UK have gone on to have children. Half of all couples composed of UK and Old-EU individuals (just under 19,000 couples); couples where both partners are nationals of “Old-EU” countries (about 4,500 couples); and those where both partners are nationals of “New-EU” countries (just over 20,000 couples), have at least one dependent child (aged between 0-18 years).

Bi-national partnerships, where individuals in a couple report different nationalities, are often created because ‘love is … a key factor in migration decisions’ ( Van Mol et al, 2015 ). Such partnerships have frequently been used as an indicator of social integration ( Qian and Lichter, 2007 ), and form an intrinsic part of intra-European migration (Van Mol et al, 2015). Within the British context, policy interest in bi-national partnerships as a result of the vote to leave the European Union extends beyond couples where one partner was born in the UK but the other was not, to capture also couples where both partners were born outside the UK.

The current policy debate is revisiting the principles of free labour movement within the European Union, which can have significant implications for the rights and responsibilities of European nationals in the UK. Such implications can be even greater in cases where bi-national partnerships have produced children, in a number of ways.

First, the eligibility of non-UK partners to stay in the UK might be changed, which could directly impact the ability of partners to stay together in Britain. Secondly, non-UK partners might also be affected in terms of their ability to maintain economic activity in the UK, thereby impacting on the socio-economic position of the family. Thirdly, the nationality and citizenship status of the children of bi-national couples might become uncertain, affecting such children both in terms of their identity and from the perspective of their socio-economic status in the UK, which is directly related to the status of their parents.

Professor Jane Falkingham OBE

Professor Maria Evandrou

Dr Zhixin Feng

Dr Athina Vlachantoni

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