Amidst uncertainty and othering, EU citizens in search of belonging: The impact of Brexit on migrant identity and significant life-course decisions
The final assignment of my Double Master’s degree in European Politics, Society and Culture at the Universities of Groningen and of Uppsala was to produce a Master’s thesis, for which I chose to research the impact of Brexit on EU27 citizens living in the UK.
Brexit constitutes a unique moment in the history of intra-EU migration, and the sizeable population impacted by the changes present a novel case study for researchers of identity. My thesis shines a spotlight on the underestimated impact of Brexit on the social identity formation of EU27 citizens and the resulting consequences for them, through presenting and analysing the real-life attitudes and reactions to Brexit of three EU27 nationalities in London: Italians, Polish and Romanians. Given the relative scarcity of academic literature on this exact subject matter, I conducted my own primary research through 22 in-depth qualitative interviews, focused on the following research questions:
- Impact on identity
- How does Brexit affect the identity formation processes of Italian, Polish and Romanian citizens living in London?
- In what ways do the different national backgrounds affect these identity formation processes?
- How do Italian, Polish and Romanian citizens in London deal with the impact of Brexit on their identity?
- What consequences or outcomes does this provoke?
Here’s the thesis abstract summarising my approach and key findings:
The UK’s departure from the EU marks a pivotal moment in the history of intra-EU migration, one which foretells significant consequences for the identities and future plans of EU27 citizens who call the UK home, as they try to navigate the uncertainty and xenophobic othering sparked by the referendum result in June 2016. This thesis proposes five hypotheses on the cause-and-effect relationships that link migrant identity to subsequent decision-making in the context of Brexit, through coping strategies and other determining factors. Findings are based on thematic and comparative analysis of qualitative in-depth interviews with 22 Italian, Polish and Romanian citizens living in London, which were conducted between March 2018 and April 2019, prior to the UK’s departure date and during a period of considerable uncertainty regarding their future in the country.
In terms of Brexit’s impact on their identity formation, xenophobic othering plays a key role in reinforcing and reconfiguring collective identities, and provokes contests to citizenship-identity hierarchies within the EU27 community in London. Despite the three nationalities’ differing patterns of belonging and resulting identity reconfigurations, Brexit has broadly increased their attachment to, and solidarity through, a transnational European identity. In terms of the practical impact of Brexit on significant life-course decisions, the referendum has not triggered a ‘Brexodus’ or mass emigration of EU27 citizens from the UK, as emigration decisions are primarily governed by individual and circumstantial factors. Citizens who do not emigrate either face analysis paralysis and adopt avoidance tactics to delay decision-making, or they opt for instrumental naturalisation which often leads subliminally to a greater sense of belonging in the UK. Alongside the general hypotheses, this thesis also depicts the diverse attitudes and coping strategies that differentiate Italians, Polish and Romanians from one another, with regards to their distinct national and cultural backgrounds.
Keywords: belonging, Brexit, European identity, identity, interviews, London, migrant identity, migration, othering, social identity, uncertainty
I accumulated over 30 hours of recorded interviews, some of which revealed quite shocking experiences of xenophobia and discrimination, all of which revealed a sense of othering and the consequences of living in a state of uncertainty. The thesis includes many direct quotations from the interviewees which bring their experiences and stories to life. This particular quotation embodies how many of them were feeling:
As a guide to reading the thesis, which is 111-pages-long, you can consult the Contents on pages 4-6 to find specific sections, and the thesis follows this structure:
The thesis begins with a literature review in Chapter 1 to introduce the pertinent theoretical and empirical perspectives on social identity formation and place this research within its academic field. In Chapter 2, the rationale behind selecting Italian, Polish and Romanian citizens as subjects for analysis and the methodology underpinning the 21 primary research interviews are then explained, before a historical overview of the three nationalities’ migratory patterns to the UK is presented in Chapter 3 to contextualise the primary research.
Chapters 4 and 5 then utilise evidence from the primary sources to thematically and comparatively analyse the significant factors affecting the social identity formation processes of Italians, Polish and Romanians in the context of Brexit and the subsequent consequences. In Chapter 6, these key themes are presented as five hypotheses before, finally, the key findings are recapped in the Conclusion along with suggested fruitful avenues for further research.
I am available to present my research findings to relevant organisations or groups, as well as interested academics, including those cited in the thesis, with the aim of helping to inform and improve the way EU27 citizens are treated going forwards.