Brexit in the North

What will Brexit mean to people with personal, economic and legal connections to the United Kingdom and the northern Netherlands?

Text by Traci White / Layout by Mart Oosterman

Freedom of movement within the European Union has rendered borders and nationality virtually invisible. But when the United Kingdom begins leaving the European Union in a little less than a year, those concepts will become very real to anyone who has some connection, be it personal or professional, to the Northern Netherlands and Great Britain.


Freedom of movement

The European Union single market effectively creates one economy across Europe and permits free movement of goods, services, money and people among member states. Inspections and declarations at customs entering and exiting the UK will inevitably become more complicated post-Brexit.

Freedom to work

EU member states can employ citizens from anywhere else in the EU as easily as hiring someone from that country. After Brexit, hiring an EU national at a UK company may require a visa, running the risk that British companies may decide it is not worth the trouble and motivate them to hire locally instead.


Will the 3 million EU citizens working in the United Kingdom be able to access the pension that they accumulated in the UK if they move back home? What will English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people be entitled to if they work in a member state and then eventually return to the UK?

Irish border

Northern Ireland voted remain (55.8 percent remain, 44.2 percent leave). That vote was informed by the knowledge that a leave vote would mean the 300-mile-long border between it and Ireland would become the border between an EU member state and the United Kingdom. People have crossed it for work and trade daily for most of its century-long existence, and its open nature has been crucial in keeping the peace post-Troubles.

International collaborations

Hundreds of European companies have revaluated their investments in the UK because of Brexit and fear that the cost of doing business will rise. The European Research Council, which grants billions of euros to academic researchers across the European Union annually, has already announced that although UK-based academics can apply for financing through the end of 2020, the ERC cannot guarantee that British research will qualify after that.


20 February, 2016

David Cameron announced that the United Kingdom will hold a referendum for voters to decide whether to leave or remain in the European Union.

23 June, 2016

The Brexit referendum is held in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although Scotland and Northern Ireland vote “remain”, the overall vote is a slight majority (52 percent) in favour of leaving the European Union.

19 March, 2018

A draft agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union is announced. The preliminary agreement indicates a “soft” Brexit rather than a “hard” Brexit.

29 March, 2019

At 11 p.m. on this date, the United Kingdom will formally leave the European Union. However, this date is the beginning of a planned transition period for companies and people with connections to the UK to finalize their plans for whether to stay or go.

31 December, 2020

As of 2018, laws currently in place regarding the rights of people from the United Kingdom in Member States and vice versa will remain in place. How the legal status of UK citizen abroad and EU citizens in Britain will change after this date has yet to be formally confirmed.
The people

Many of my closest friend’s relationships are a direct result of freedom of movement within Europe. To them, Brexit is not a vague concept. It’s not a matter of life or death, but their personal and professional decisions are already being influenced in subtle ways. I spoke to five people with connections to the UK and The Netherlands to hear what Brexit has already meant to them.

Everaert Advocaten, an Amsterdam law firm specializing in immigration law, had a look at each of the following stories and explained what the legal implications could be for people with one foot in the Netherlands and one foot in the United Kingdom based on the Draft Withdrawal Agreement. ( These are general recommendations, not binding legal advice, and are based on the interviewees meeting requirements for residency in the European Union. Their comments are informed by information available on the current stage of the draft negotiations between the United Kingdom and the 27 European Union member states as of 20 March, 2018.

Photo credit: Ralf Hunze

Tom Wilcox

“It felt like people might be voting to take away an aspect of my rights that I have to live my life and enjoy, and I can’t do anything about it.”

“I consider Groningen to be my home, but I’ve got an English passport”, says Tom Wilcox, a communications instructor at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. When the referendum was announced in 2016, Tom realized that his fate was in someone else’s hands: having lived in the Netherlands for more than 25 years, he could not vote. “People might be voting to take away an aspect of my rights that I have to live my life and enjoy, and I can’t do anything about it.”

Tom was initially incensed at the leave vote and assumed the worst about what Brexit would mean for him, including his ability to travel freely to visit his parents in Wales. But he has a slightly different perspective nowadays. “It’s humbling because there’s also real issues, like getting out of a warzone or a dictatorship or repression or grinding poverty”, he says. “Having to get into a different line at the airport when going to visit your parents pales in comparison.” He and his wife, Naomi, who is Canadian and doing a post doc at the University of Groningen, have not felt any pressure to consider moving to Britain to get in under the Brexit wire. “It’s not the thing that’s deciding where we go. It’s an annoying complication, but we’re not going to move to the UK now for Brexit reasons”, he says. “If work means that we decide to stay here, then we’ll make it work.”

Legal status:

Mirjam den Besten: Considering the Draft Withdrawal Agreement – and please note it is only a draft and not final – it appears the British man would fall within the scope of Article 9 1B of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement as he exercised his free movement rights before the end of the transition period and will continue to reside in the Netherlands. The Canadian woman would fall within the scope of Article 9 1E, because she is a family member of an EU citizen. If we assume they will continue to satisfy the requirements for residence under EU law, according to the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, both of them will keep the rights of residence they derive from EU law.

Edmee Sierts

“At the end of the day, I prefer to live somewhere that I feel welcome.”

After getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of Groningen, Edmee Sierts had a heart to heart with her mom. “She said, ‘if you don’t go abroad now, the chances are that you never will. The moment you get stuck in a job, it’s going to be harder to leave’”, Edmee recalls. Ten years on from that conversation, Edmee lives in Tromso, Norway, by way of Glasgow, Scotland (which voted 67 percent remain, 33 percent leave) and London, England. While getting her master’s degree in Glasgow, she met her boyfriend, Tord, who is Norwegian, and the couple eventually moved to London, where Edmee worked as a game localizer for several years.

The couple moved away from the United Kingdom one year after the referendum, but Edmee says that decision was mainly motivated by being at a point in their careers that they wanted a change. But the leave vote still weighed on her. “It was definitely one of those things that made us consider what we wanted to do, and whether we wanted to stick around or not.” After witnessing a British man call out three Spanish girls in an elevator for speaking Spanish, she found herself seriously questioning how open minded Britain still was. “At the end of the day, I prefer to live somewhere that I feel welcome.” Their new home is north of the Arctic Circle, which is literally a breath of fresh air after living in London, and Edmee loves the quality of life that Tromso offers, but she says they would never rule out eventually returning to the United Kingdom. 

Legal status:

Julian van Dam: Considering the text of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, they would need to return to the UK before the end of the transition period if they would want to keep their right of residence under EU law. If they return after the transition period, their position is less clear.”

Photo credit: Arpita Shah

Photo credit: Niels Worrell

Blanca C.

“I remember going to work the day after the Brexit vote, and my colleagues were all so quiet and silent, and the streets were empty. It was so weird.”

When Blanca C. was offered a communications job in London in 2015, she and her Dutch boyfriend, Niels, packed up their apartment in Groningen and headed west. As the referendum drew near, Blanca, who is from Spain and works at a company largely staffed by other Europeans, was assured by everyone she spoke to in the capital that a “leave” vote could not possibly happen. While London itself voted overwhelmingly to remain (60 percent remain, 40 percent leave), the mood in the city the day after was solemn. “My colleagues were all so quiet and silent, and the streets were empty. It was so weird”, Blanca recalls.

Despite the national vote, she does not think that Brexit will do much to change the city. “I still believe there will always be room for professionals here, regardless of nationality or visa”, she says. “I think London will remain attractive for investments and people around the world, and tourism.” She and her boyfriend are both still perfectly happy in the city: “You don’t get tired of it, and we’re not considering leaving yet.” But she is concerned about the impact of Brexit on families with British and European members who have put down long term roots, as well as other Europeans who may hesitate to move to England now. “I think it will be an issue for the newcomers, not so much for the people who are already here and paying taxes like anyone else.”

Legal status: 

Mirjam den Besten: “Because they’re both EU citizens, in that sense, they’re not dependent on each other. So it’s the same story: they exercised their free movement rights before the end of the transition period, so as long as they comply with the conditions of EU law that you either have to work or have sufficient resources, they keep their rights. According to the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, they should be able to continue living there and working there.”

Inge Alferink and Helen Buckler

Inge: “A lot of people are in a kind of limbo and trying to figure things out”

Helen: “If you don’t follow the media, you can ignore it. You can get on with your day to day life.”

Figuring out your place in a new country is basically second nature to Inge Alferink and Helen Buckler: over the past decade, they have called Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Britain home. The couple moved to the United Kingdom in 2017 from Canada when Helen was offered a job at the University of Nottingham, but the tense media coverage since the referendum made them fear the worst. “You think we’re going to come back to the UK and it’s going to be the four horsemen of the apocalypse. That’s what it feels like, that the home office is going to come over and drag you out of the country. But it’s not like that at all”, Helen says. “If you don’t follow the media, you can ignore it. You can get on with your day to day life”.

Nottingham narrowly voted “leave” (50.7 percent leave, 49.1 percent remain), but Inge and Helen admit to living in bit of an international academic bubble within the university city. Inge says she does not feel that she is treated any differently as a foreigner in post-referendum Britain, although nearly everyone knows someone who has had an unpleasant experience. But it feels like the conversation has shifted away from national identity to actual policy. “Now it’s about what the hell are we going to do”, Inge says. “It would be nice to have what’s been promised on paper to be set in stone. Things keep getting promised and then taken off the table.”

Legal status:

Mirjam den Besten: “The Dutch woman is an EU citizen, she has made use of her free movement rights, so she falls within the scope of article 9, 1A. She did that before the end of the transition period and she is planning to continue to reside in the UK after that, so basically, for her, everything will remain the same. She will keep the rights she obtained under EU law. Considering the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, that’s not going to change.”

Photo credit: Inge Alferink

How can you even begin to measure the economic impact of Great Britain withdrawing from the European Union? As part of a team of international researchers, University of Groningen economics professor Bart Los did the math: up to 2.5 million jobs could be put at risk and 8.5 percent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product could be affected.

For the very latest Brexit developments, visit the British government’s site.
Traci White

Author Traci White

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