Brexit and citizenship


On 23 June, the United Kingdom (UK) held a referendum on whether the country should remain a member of or withdraw from the European Union (EU). A total of 51.9 per cent of citizens, at a turnout of 72.2 per cent, voted that the UK should leave the EU. 

The formal procedure for withdrawing from the EU provides that the UK invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by notifying the European Council of a decision to withdraw from the European Union. The formal notification is followed by a period of negotiations that aim at arranging the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and setting the pillars for the future relationship. Should the negotiations not be concluded within two years from the date of notification (or the period extended by a unanimous vote of the Member States) it will cease to be a Member State by default and the EU Treaties will no longer apply to the UK.

Once the EU treaties cease to apply to the UK, citizens of this country will no longer have the status of EU citizens, because the latter is conditional upon being a citizen of a Member State. This means that UK citizens will also lose the rights associated with EU citizenship, including the freedom of movement and residence in the 27 EU Member States, the right to non-discrimination on grounds of nationality, voting rights in municipal and European Parliament elections, consular protection by another EU country, and so on. In other words, unless the negotiations between the UK and the EU yield a different solution, once the UK is no longer an EU country, over a million of its citizens residing elsewhere within the EU will become third country nationals. Such a change in status would likely limit their residence rights to a single country and exclude them from participating in local and European political processes, except where provided for by national law.

As a consequence, British expatriates in a number of EU countries, such as Belgium (where many UK citizen EU officials reside), Italy, Spain and Sweden have started exploring options for naturalising in these countries. At the same time, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum British citizens in the UK have lodged requests for EU passports, most notably that of Ireland

Many people in the UK are Irish citizens by descent from parents or grandparents born in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. In some cases, in order to establish their citizenship, they will first need to enter their names on the register of foreign births. But for many people asserting their Irish citizenship which has been dormant is simply a matter of applying for an Irish passport. Newspapers report that the number of demands for Irish passport application papers has been so high that the Post Office in Belfast has run out of application forms on 27 June, while there are also long queues in front of the Irish Passport Offices in London and in Belfast. 

Citizenship applications for other EU Member States also increased in the aftermath of the referendum, even though not as much as those for Irish citizenship. For instance, on 24 June, the Italian consulate in London received 31 applications for this country’s citizenship, while the one in Edinburgh received 4 such requests.

At the same time, around three million EU citizens residing in the UK are in a situation of uncertainty, since their legal residence rights in the UK emanate from the link between their national and EU citizenship. During the electoral campaign, the Leave camp asserted that the EU nationals who are already in the UK would automatically be granted an ‘indefinite leave to remain’, while the Remain camp argued that there would be administrative hurdles for such citizens, because they will lose the right to live and work in the UK derived from their status of EU citizens. Scholars and commentators have highlighted that resolving the issue of legal residence of EU citizens in the UK could result in bureaucratic errors that could potentially have ‘human costs’ and lead to a ‘brain drain

It is still to early to say whether the outcome of the two years negotiation period between the British government and the EU will result in an associated status for the country that would preserve some of the current privileges enjoyed by UK citizens residing in other EU states and EU citizens residing in the UK.  

Special claims for preventing the loss of EU citizenship for UK citizens in Scotland and Northern Ireland, including possible referenda on Scottish independence or Irish reunification, have been made by the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish National Party) and the deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein). Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for the UK to remain in the EU, with 62 and 55.8 per cent respectively. In Scotland, the result of an earlier referendum in 2014, which was 45/55 in favour of remaining in the UK may be reversed. However, at this stage it is unclear how these processes will play out in the near or medium term future. 

While the status of both UK citizens residing in the EU and EU citizens residing in the UK will remain unchanged until the cessation of the EU Treaties in the UK, negotiating statuses created by the decoupling of national and EU citizenship will be one of the key issues faced by the British and European policymakers in the coming years. 


 *For more information about the current and past citizenship legislation in the UK and other EU Member States, please consult our country profile pages.*