Has there been a ‘Brexodus’ of EU citizens since the referendum?

Published: 26th Jul 2018

Around 3.8 million people living in the UK are citizens of another EU country, a record number. That’s about 6% of the UK population, according to the latest figures covering 2017.

That compares to 3.4 million in the year before the EU referendum. Overall, the EU citizen population in the UK has gone up by an estimated 240,000 in the last 12 months, an increase of 7%.

This may represent a slight slowing down in the rate of EU population growth, but the available figures aren’t completely clear. We know the population of other EU nationals in the UK increased by about 13% between 2015 and 2016, the last period we have data for before the EU referendum.

In any case, there’s little evidence yet that EU citizen population growth has changed trend since the referendum vote last year.

EU net migration to the UK has fallen since the vote, but is still positive—more EU citizens are entering than leaving

In the year before the referendum, net migration of citizens of other EU countries was estimated at 189,000. In other words, many more EU citizens immigrated to the UK than emigrated from it.

In 2017, it fell to an estimated 101,000.

If you look specifically at EU citizens emigrating abroad, around 95,000 are thought to have emigrated in the year before the referendum, increasing to 118,000 in the year after, and 139,000 in 2017.

So both sets of figures show a marked cooling off in the EU immigration figures, although it remains the case that more come to the UK than leave.

There are ongoing concerns about the accuracy of these figures

All of the figures mentioned so far come from surveys, rather than physically counting people in and out of the country. This isn’t normally a problem—plenty of major and reliable statistics about the UK come from surveys, like employment estimates.

The problem with these is that the surveys relating to immigration and population don’t agree on what’s happening. Coupled with that, they don’t tell the same story that administrative data, such as the number of National Insurance numbers being issued to EU nationals, is telling.

One of these ‘disagreements’ becomes apparent when comparing the previous two charts—the non-EU population of the UK isn’t growing, but the net migration of non-EU citizens is positive each year. One recent estimate suggested that, over the past eight years, around half a million non-EU nationals are unaccounted for because of this difference, and a similar discrepancy in the opposite direction applies to EU nationals.

More recently, there’s evidence from work the ONS has done comparing its estimates to admin data from the Home Office that the passenger survey may be underestimating the number of people who emigrate abroad after coming to study in the UK:

“This [work] led us to conclude that the International Passenger Survey was likely to be underestimating former student emigration and we therefore concluded that any implied non-EU student net migration figure is likely to be an overestimate.” 

It’s important to remember that different sources of data won’t always match exactly, even when they’re working as they should. For example, the population estimates exclude people living in communal establishments, whereas there’s no reason a passenger survey at an airport would.

But with all this in mind, the figures on net migration and particularly any figures on migration for study purposes should be treated with caution.

There are a near-record number of EU workers in the UK, but the rate of increase has slowed down

There are around 2.3 million citizens of other EU countries in employment in the UK, using the latest figures for January to March this year. That’s slightly lower than in each of the last four quarters (which were record figures). It also represents a marked slowing down in the rate of growth we’ve seen in recent years.

The number of EU citizens in work grew by 12% in the year leading up to the referendum, but it fell by 1% in the 12 months to March 2018.

One of the biggest changes is among workers of the ‘A8’ EU countries—mainly central European countries which joined the EU in 2004, like Poland and the Czech Republic. Figures suggest their numbers have started to fall.

This slowdown actually started before the referendum: worker growth in 2016 before the referendum was less than half what it was in 2015.

Citizens of other EU countries are more likely to be workers than ever before

Another change since the referendum vote is that EU citizens who are here are more likely to be in some kind of work.

The employment rates of EU citizens—in this case the proportion of people aged 16-64 who are in work—have risen across the board since the referendum. That includes citizens of the A8 central European countries, those from Romania and Bulgaria, and those of older EU member states like France and Germany. It also follows growth in the employment rate of UK citizens.

Overall, 82% of EU citizens in the UK of that age group are thought to be in work.

There are any number of reasons why this might be the case, but a good theory is that fewer citizens of other EU countries are immigrating to the UK without a job in the first place.

That’s because immigration estimates suggest that as well. 45% of EU immigrants currently say their main reason for coming is because they have a definite job lined up—a very high proportion by historical standards. Meanwhile the proportion of citizens coming looking for work has fallen from 31% of immigrants in the year before the referendum to 16% of those in 2017.

Polish citizens make up the bulk of non-British EU citizens living in the UK

Of the 3.8 million EU citizens living in the UK, an estimated one million are Polish nationals, the largest single nationality from the rest of the EU. They’re followed by an estimated 411,000 Romanians and 350,000 Irish nationals.

These figures aren’t certain: they’re based on a survey of households and that means there’s a margin for error for the figure for each nationality. Polish, Romanian and Irish citizens are clearly the most numerous, but further down the list, the ‘rank order’ of nationalities isn’t reliable.


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