Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

Views on Europe | T minus two

Prof Derek McGhee


Should I stay or should I go? Strategies of EU citizens living in the UK in the context of the EU referendum

In the debates around the upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, the topic of migration has been high on the agenda. According to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics, there are around 2.8 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK, constituting 6% of the total UK population. These EU migrants are among the most immediately and directly affected by a potential so-called ‘Brexit’. In this blog we comment on our findings from our preliminary analysis of our survey data, focused on our participants’ strategies in the context of a potential Brexit. For example, would they: (1) consider remigration or migration to another country; (2) consider applying for permanent residence or British citizenship, or (3) take no action.

The Study

The findings presented here are based on a selected sample of 737 respondents to an online survey of EU migrants currently living in the UK. While the survey has a wider focus, here we restrict the sample to the three largest EU national groups living in the UK (excluding Irish citizens, who have a broader set of political rights in respect to the Referendum): Portuguese, Polish and Romanian nationals. The three groups also represent three different EU membership phases, with Portugal joining the EU in 1986, Poland in 2004 and Romania in 2007.

Main findings

Broadly speaking, EU citizens living in the UK have two possible strategies in the event of a change in their legal status as a consequence of Brexit; staying or going. Here we refer to going as a ‘mobility’ strategy. Staying can be broken down into staying by taking ‘no action’ or staying and adopting ‘civic integration’ strategies, that is obtaining either permanent resident status in the UK and/or British citizenship.

Looking at differences between the three national groups, we found that they were not equally affected by a possible ‘Brexit effect’. Portuguese citizens appear to be the most responsive, showing a 10% increase in their likelihood to adopt either a mobility or civic strategy in case of a Brexit, compared to a 7% increase for Poles and an 8% decrease for Romanian citizens.

Among Portuguese respondents, Brexit has a positive influence on civic integration strategies and a negative influence on mobility strategies. More Portuguese than Poles and Romanians are planning to leave the UK within the next 5 years if no Brexit occurs. In the case of Brexit 1 in 7 more Portuguese than otherwise would consider civic integration strategies.

For Polish citizens, the Brexit effect was more limited, but manifested on both mobility and civic strategies, with 3-4% more Poles choosing to either leave the UK or adopt civic integration measures in the case of a Brexit than they otherwise would over the next 5 years.

In the case of Romanians, however, the picture is inverted. More Romanians are planning to leave the country over the coming 5 years if there is no Brexit (15%) than would if the UK left the EU (11%); similarly, a higher percentage stated that they would opt for civic integration in the next 5 years (73%) than in the case of a Brexit (68%).


Our preliminary results indicate that applying for naturalisation is one of the ‘most likely’ actions that EU migrants would take in case of Brexit, but even more so as a five-year plan.

Based on the high rate of future naturalisation intentions, we can conclude that the number of applications for British citizenship is highly likely to increase over the next five years regardless of the outcome of the EU Referendum. However, a vote to leave the European Union may encourage many eligible EU migrants to bring forward their plans to apply for naturalisation, and push many of those who would otherwise not opt for ‘civic integration’ to follow such strategies, even if they are eventually planning to leave.

Although the survey sample reported here is not representative of the EU migrant population in the UK as a whole, our findings show that a large proportion of EU migrants are intending to stay in the UK. When our survey closes (on the 23rd June 2016) we will be able to analyse the future naturalisation intentions of (non-UK) European citizens from the other 27 countries living in the UK. In this analysis we will see if there are any differences between EU recession migrants (from Southern EU countries), EU accession migrants from the EU 8 and EU 2 countries, and EU migrants from the more established Northern European countries in terms of their future naturalisation intentions in the UK.



Professor Derek McGhee

Derek  is Head of Social Sciences within Social Sciences: Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology at the University of Southampton. He was supported with the production of this article by Dr Chris Moreh and Dr Athina Vlachantoni



Prof Falkingham

T minus two

How likely is a UK population of 80m – and would it really be a problem? | Prof Falkingham

Next article
Views on Europe

Views on Europe

Cathc up with past editions

More Views on Europe
Facebook Twitter

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.