Lorenza Antonucci and Simone Varriale highlight the UK’s influence over EU supranational policies and explain how Britain contributed to an unequal Europe.

In recent years, British progressives have faced the following conundrum: how can we defend the neoliberal dogma of free movement when Brexit has been the expression of a working class revolt (although this can be challenged) against the EU project? Yet including free movement in a future Labour manifesto – as voted in the 2019 conference – while also aiming to address a number of inequalities, demands seeing EU migration itself through the lenses of inequality. This implies understanding the position of the UK in exacerbating intra-European inequalities; how UK influence in Europe shaped patterns of intra-EU migration; and overcoming a monolithic notion of EU migrants as white and middle class.

How the UK has contributed EU inequalities

The position of the UK in Europe has always been one of scepticism and emphasis of its national difference, but Britain has imparted many of its flagship policies at the EU level, creating an overlap between the features of the British economic model and the EU’s pro-market stance. There are several examples of this: Margaret Thatcher’s role in driving the completion of the European Single Market; Britain’s influence over the EU’s strategy of building a knowledge-based economy; and, most recently, over how the EU reacted to the 2008 banking crisis.

Britain’s role in Europe is best understood by referring to the concept of core-periphery inequalities that have characterised the EU project since its creation. Capitalist core-periphery dynamics have shaped notions of ‘progress’ and ‘backwardness’ within Europe even before the start of the EU project. For example, Britain’s decision to enter the EEC stemmed from the need to protect white British national identity after Empire. At the same time, Malta and Cyprus – former British colonies – subsequently also joined the EU, and continued this way their trade relationship with their former colonial ruler.

Also, the Lisbon Strategy was based on the division between ‘core’ Nordic countries and liberal countries (the UK and Ireland) viewed as the ‘best practice’ models for the creation of a knowledge-based economy, in opposition to continental and, in particular, Mediterranean countries, which had to be reformed. One of the pillars of the knowledge-based strategy was precisely the optimal allocation of a skilled labour force in knowledge-intense economies. Through this paradigm, the UK reinforced its economic advantage vis-à-vis other EU countries by attracting from peripheral countries both a skilled, university-educated labour force and a lower-skilled workforce employed in sectors like hospitality, retail, and construction.

The influence of the UK in the rest of Europe was also evident during the 2008 crisis, when countries of the periphery, particularly Southern ones, were pressured to reduce their deficits and comply with EU economic criteria by the hegemonic role of Germany and aligned countries, like Britain. Our analysis of the country-specific recommendations that the EU elaborates for its member states shows that, despite a façade of conflict, Britain’s policies broadly aligned with EU strategy and that the UK was virtually unaffected by the European austerity agenda that dramatically affected peripheral countries.

Land of meritocracy? How Britain attracted EU migrants

Intra-EU mobility is an essential and functional aspect of the UK’s role in Europe. The motivation behind the policy of non-restriction towards migrants from Central and Eastern Europe, adopted by the UK with the 2004 enlargement, aimed precisely to ‘fill gaps in the low-skilled sector of the labour market’. This strategy has both economic and symbolic effects.

Quantitatively, the flows of intra-EU migration have tended to go from the periphery of Europe to its core countries. This trend is the consequence of the intra-European divide, with Northern European countries like the UK attracting the highest share of South European migration since the 2008 economic crisis and East-to-West patterns of migration since the 2004 and 2007 enlargements.

Also symbolically, since becoming part of the EU, Britain has reinforced this core-periphery divide by providing a narrative script for the ‘good nation’ that other European countries, via EU policies, are compelled to implement and that EU migrants have internalised to a significant extent. The meritocratic image of London, and of the UK more generally, emerges clearly from the narratives of Southern and Eastern European migrants. Core-periphery inequalities also feed into forms of racialisation that frame different groups of European migrants as more or less culturally ‘developed’. Before the EU Referendum, it was especially Central and East European populations that experienced racism in the UK, with Romanian migrants in particular being associated with crime and benefit scrounging. Post-referendum, these stereotypes continue to affect EU migrants in unequal ways, as reported by emerging research on experiences of racism among young Eastern Europeans.

Beyond the monolithic view of EU migrants: intersections of race, class, and gender

The third step in integrating the Labour inequality agenda with intra-EU migration is an appreciation of how EU migrants can be affected by Brexit in terms of class, gender and skin colour. For example, while Western European migrants tend to be depicted as professionals in news coverage, recent research shows that inequalities of economic, cultural and social capital – frequently grounded in inequalities of family background – can affect Western Europeans’ migrations in terms of professional advancement, housing and sense of self-realisation, complicating their social positions in Britain’s stratification system. Earlier studies of Western EU professionals also showed that some of them come from working-class, provincial and/or migrant backgrounds. This scholarship problematises easy assumptions about Western EU migrants as white, middle class, and privileged, but it also forces us to challenge stereotypes about Eastern EU migrants, including their association with social immobility or lower-skilled migration. Inequalities of economic, cultural, and social capital thus create divisions within migrant groups, but these divisions disappear in the popular discourse and its emphasis on East-West divisions.

EU migrants’ access to unequal resources is further complicated by gender inequalities and racism. EU migrant women working part-time and on zero-hour contracts (usually in ‘feminised’ sectors like paid care and cleaning) may be unable to prove their residency rights and to access social benefits, while non-working partners and unpaid carers may find it more difficult to prove their residency status in the application for ‘settled status’. Furthermore, while European migration has long been associated with whiteness, recent studies suggest that black EU migrants are more likely to experience racism and occupational precarity and are thus prevented from accessing different forms of capital.

To sum up, Brexit cannot be fully understood through the lenses of inequalities without considering the context of Britain’s influence as a core country in Europe; the related trends of intra-EU migration from the periphery to core countries such as the UK; the complex intersections of privilege and disadvantage that make intra-European migration fundamentally unequal and Brexit an asymmetrical process for non-UK EU citizens.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Current Sociology.

About the Authors

Lorenza Antonucci is Lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the School of Social Policy of the University of Birmingham. Lorenza’s research explores the causes and effects of inequality across Europe. She is the author of ‘Student Lives in Crisis‘ (Policy Press, 2016) and tweets at @SocialLore.


Simone Varriale is Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Lincoln. Simone’s research explores how inequalities shape patterns and experiences of migration and globalization. He is the author of ‘Unequal Youth Migrations’ (Sociology, 2019) and ‘Globalization, Music and Cultures of Distinction’ (Palgrave, 2016). He tweets at @franklyMrS.


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 credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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