Divorce is messy, and uniquely so. Nowhere else are we so regrettably obliged to extricate the threads of our legal, economic, and emotional wellbeing. Brexit might come close, though. Leaving the EU would be an emotional and expensive legal headache for both the UK and its bi-national couples, with Britain footing most of the bill.
It works like this. Research conducted by the Centre of Population Change at the University of Southampton and recently published by Population Europe concludes that EU citizens in the UK consist mostly of working-age individuals in work. They tend to be both better educated and more likely to be employed than their native-born counterparts. Not surprisingly, they overwhelmingly tend to be net contributors to the British welfare system.
But they would be inclined to emigrate again should the UK decide to abandon the EU. Voting to leave would be seen as an endorsement of the increasingly restrictive policies vis-à-vis EU immigrants being adopted by the government since 2014, and we know that countries with less discriminatory policies are better at attracting the talent their economy needs.
This complicates things for Britain’s bi-national couples. Marriage certainly shields EU citizens married to British citizens from some of Brexit’s promised legal uncertainty, but not all of it. It will not, for example, necessarily protect them from employers’ jitters about paying someone whose right to work may be in limbo. Access to social entitlements may also be at risk, or at least perceived to be.
This is to say nothing of the effect on their children, whose nationality and citizenship status may be left up in the air for all but the most adept bureaucracy navigators.
Couples’ response will likely be to seek citizenship for the non-British partner. Ironically, this will entitle them to even more social benefits than they would have had otherwise. One need look no farther than British citizens in other EU countries, who have already begun applying for non-UK citizenship. The difference is that as other net contributors leave the UK, it will come at a higher cost.
To be sure, even if Britain votes to stay, the referendum will already have begun to have a strong deterrent effect, particularly for the most talented, who tend to (understandably) want to go where they feel welcome and privileged.
But not everyone will stop coming. Population exchange has been a continuous phenomenon throughout human history. Walls, border patrols, and restrictive policies cannot stop it in the long run. They can be painful for our partners, though. And, even before the lawyers, they don’t come cheap.
Knowledge of these consequences will not likely persuade the most ardent Brexiteers, but policymakers and public opinion leaders should bear them in mind—perhaps as they recall why we were together in the first place.