After the Brexit vote, a ‘silent majority’ was revealed, whereby those prejudiced against EU immigrants now felt they could express those views freely. But discrimination is not only the result of bigotry, writes Thomas Roulet. He explains the many ways EU citizens are already being stigmatised in Britain, and how such treatment may progressively lead to an erosion of their rights.
How is Brexit affecting EU citizens? While most of the public debate has revolved around EU citizens’ right to stay, their ‘settled status’, and ‘permanent residence’, less attention has been given to the general hostility towards migrants that fuelled the vote, and the change in attitudes since.
As a social scientist studying stigmatisation, the case of EU citizens in the UK is particularly telling. Sociologists and social psychologists broadly agree on a definition of stigma as a negative label that links an individual to a socially devalued characteristic. Stigmatisation is often considered as a dichotomous categorisation process – individuals either belong to the stigmatised category or they are out of it. This process emerges when a critical mass of stakeholders and social actors start to consider a characteristic as devalued. Can we say that in today’s Britain, being an EU citizen is socially devalued?
Until the vote, being publicly hostile to migration was socially frowned upon. People holding a negative prejudice against EU immigrants thought they belonged to a minority, until the Brexit result made them feel like they were part of a majority that shared their point of view. Yet the fear of immigration was not evenly shared among all Brexit voters. In fact, in some case it was not even a motivation. But it did not prevent those who were indeed motivated by hostility to immigration to believe that the 52% who voted in favour of the UK leaving the EU shared the same views. By, in appearance, revealing a majority hostile to EU immigrants, Brexit legitimised this antagonism. People holding such political positions felt safer to express them in public. But when does hostility result in stigma?
From cues to prejudice, from prejudice to apathy, and from apathy to discrimination
In the aftermath of Brexit, I sat on a train back from the countryside next to an older British lady and a Romanian man. The lady spotted the accent of the man, and asked him, with no malice intended, when he was planning to “return home” as a consequence of Brexit. With the same ingenuity, he answered that he was studying in the UK and did not feel the need to leave. She had made a shortcut linking the accent of her fellow traveller to his origins and formulated expectations with regards to his behaviour. He was subject to a prejudice due to the category he was associated with. That’s precisely how stigmatisation processes start to unfold.
Reports of individuals speaking a foreign language or English with a foreign accent being told to ‘speak English‘ are becoming more common. Any visible attribute that can link individuals to their status as EU citizens is now potentially a source of prejudice. Banks, potential employers and landlords are demanding proofs of residence (even though no such proof is currently required). During the Conservative Party conference in 2016, cabinet members even suggested that companies should be forced to report a list of their foreign employees.
Laure Ollivier-Minns, a French campaigner for EU citizens’ rights summarised it in one sentence: “Brexit has created this ‘us versus them”. Because most of those EU citizens have lived in the UK for years, this situation is even more of a heartache because they feel conflicted between their identity of origin, and the efforts they have made to adopt a social identity that makes them belong to a British society that now seems to reject them.
EU citizens increasingly seem to be considered undesirable or suspicious parties to trade with – not necessarily because of negative stereotypes regarding who they are (i.e. the erroneous idea that they take jobs from British citizens), but because of prejudices and preconceptions regarding their ability to stay and live a normal life in the UK. Those banks, landlords, potential employers, are not interested in knowing the future of EU citizens in the UK, so they come to avoid them to spare themselves any possible complications. This mechanism shows that it is not only bigotry that leads to discrimination against EU citizens but also laziness, nonchalance, and uncertainty.
On the plus side, EU citizens now have a social movement defending their rights, ‘The 3 million’. Those elements, negative or positive, contribute to creating stable boundaries around EU citizens, demarcating them as a distinct category of individuals whose rights need to be protected. The existence of discrimination and of stable boundaries around a devalued category of individuals are the two elements of the stigma cocktail. This climate of hostility has led to a falling level of net migration, and reports of an increasing number of EU citizens ‘Brexiting’ universities and the NHS.
Is Theresa May’s ‘Settled status’ any likely to stop EU citizens feeling unwelcomed or discriminated against? In fact, just the idea that EU citizens will have to carry additional documentation might lead them to be and feel even more ostracised. If banks, employers, and landlords already ask unlawfully for proof of permanent residence, will they accept ‘settled’ citizens as equal parties to trade with once the UK is no longer subjected to the case law of the European Court of Justice? How will they be treating EU citizens who have not yet accumulated the five years needed to acquire settled status?
The current treatment of EU citizens, unfortunately, suggests we might observe a progressive and subtle erosion of their rights, as with the settled status. Such a drift will require acute vigilance to ensure they do not progressively become second-class citizens.
Thomas Roulet is a Senior Lecturer in International Management at King’s Business School, King’s College London. Thomas’s work is rooted in economic sociology, organisation theory and ethics, and focuses on negative social evaluations (stigma and disapproval) and ethics in the context of professional service firms (investment banking, audit firms) and cultural industries.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: CC0 Public Domain.
I’m a Dutch national who came here as a child in 1984. To look at me or speak to me you’d never guess I wasn’t from the UK. I’ve had unpleasantness when singing a Dutch nursery rhyme to my son in a café (yet all English kids will sing Frere Jacques without batting an eyelid). I’ve recently had an offer of work evaporate when I produced my passport as ID. A Finnish lady I met recently has been here since 1986, in the last two years she’s started getting abuse for speaking her native language in public when her mother has come to visit.
I anticipate things getting worse and I am frightened for myself and my son.
I could leave everything and everybody I’ve known since I was a child. Where would I go? I’m neither fully English nor fully Dutch. My son only speaks English. It shouldn’t matter, until recently it didn’t matter. Why should I be ashamed of where I’m from?
People like me can help broaden others’ horizons with our unique perspectives. We weren’t allowed to vote in the referendum, yet we have to put up with it’s outcome.
A distinct lack of evidence cited here.
More evidence here: http://badreason99.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/where-do-eu-citizens-in-uk-now-stand.html
…..and the irony is that whilst my status as EU citizen is eroding, I have been summoned to jury service!
So far I haven’t been discriminated but I know friends that have been… We pay our taxes, work hard, earn our money.. We still their job?!? Really? Well how about some of them getting up of their far overweigh assess and get back to work.. the country gives so much to people and thy take advantage but this isn’t the European people! We work hard for loving.. I build my family here.. I had my child recently.. now have to go back to work when he’s only 8 months. In my country you can take up to 2 years leave.. here is a year but you only get paid minimum money for 36 weeks! I’ve been living in the country for 8 1/2 years! Never been off work, did my college degree and always worked and paid taxes for somebody to stay home and to fuck all.. Sorry for the rant but really not fair for the people that think we are the problem.. and event yes thy are Europeans that do take benefits and yes they are some bad once too. But you only making it hard for us.. how about the Asian countries? They won’t leave as they are not affected but they was allowed to vote for brexit! Why we weren’t allowed then? Politics in this country is so fucked up in the moment that it’s gonna get worst for our children. Mine is a brutish citizen. My partner is British and he is so u happy with the way British people treat the europeans.. My mother in law is British.. and his whole family are but you know what.. They made me feel home… My home country was never my home.. Once I came here I knew this is my home and sorry for some haters but I ain’t leaving. Neither do my family and I’m sure many more Europeans..
The brexiters are living in a dream world, there are close to half a billion EU citizens against an insular and ignorant 17 million
Peterposh – aren’t you (unfairly) both stereotyping and stimatising 17 million people? Just becasue they have a different point of view to you does not make them any more ignorant than the half a billion EU citizens or indeed yourself
Spot on. The silent hostility to EU nationals had always been here, and the referendum just made it more evident. With the added government-enforced stigmatization by banks, employers, and landlords, things will only get worse in the coming years.
Exactly. I sensed the low-key hostility a few times in my 20+ years in the UK. Brexit has not changed that by much.
I am looking back to the years I’ve been living in this truly green and pleasant land, a significant chunk of my life span that has been. And nothing waste. I’ve met good people, friends and acquaintances, seen beautiful landscapes and buildings, dived deep into this rich language, participated in this rich culture, experienced delicious tastes. I’ve found new taste in poetry, improved my professional skills significantly, deepened my relationship with my partner and family. I’ve been an ambassador of the Britishness to my friends in the world and hopefully not too much of a pain in the neck to the people of this realm. It has been my country and I loved it.
But I’ve gone sad because of Brexit and I felt a sadness coming over the whole realm. Hence I left for good both, country and the NHS on past Sunday.
I so connect to what you are saying- loving the UK pre brexit- having studied English literature for my degree, I came to the UK being given a position at uni, then moving onto secondary school teaching, but loved the language, the places I visited, the people. a big part of me was saddened with the result of the vote, but more so by the ensuing decision from the UK gov not to take into account the recommendation of the House of Lords to garnt EU 27 citizens the right to remain and keep things as they are- saddened to the core to see a chunk of people expressing such blatantly racist views. saddened to the core to see that even in pro remain sites, the situation of EU citizens is not being thought of much at all. like yourself, I became an ambassador for brutishness, there was so much of this country I loved. I can’t do this now however, given the changes in attitude, because of the narrative of so many. I will be staying, but admire your decision to leave, wishing you all the best.
I hope things won’t be so bad after all so you should still enjoy your life over there. All the best to you and the people I had met and have left.
Surely you just need to listen to Jacob Rees Mogg to learn what we English think of foreigners.