Tears, compromise, divorce – what it’s like to leave the UK because of Brexit


Nicole and Hemmo have two children. Our team visited them at home just a few days before they moved to the Netherlands. Piles of boxes filled every room of the house, ready to be shipped over the coming days. Althought they had lived in the UK for several years, Brexit forced them to reassess where their family’s future lay.

Nicole, who is German and has two children, told us:

Leaving feels like a funeral, because you don’t realise what’s going to happen until too late, because you’re so busy with doing things beforehand, preparing for it and then once it has happened, you only realise weeks and weeks later what you lost, what you’re missing.

The whole family had agreed to leave the UK but choosing a destination proved more laborious, not least because “going back home” was not an option – at least not for everyone at the same time. Nicole is originally from Germany, her husband Hemmo is Dutch and her children were born in the UK.

Nicole’s family, like thousands in the UK, embodied the EU aspiration of a pan-European citizenry, moving across multiple nations and settling together in another. These families had to come to terms with what the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU meant for them and their future.

But leaving was rarely straightforward. Exit trajectories, our research recently published in The Sociological Review shows, are far from linear. They often require numerous adjustments based on the configuration of the family unit. Our study delves deep into these untold stories revealing a complex web of hopes, challenges, sacrifices and entanglements.

Faced with diverging interests, needs and expectations, families who eventually moved away from the UK due to Brexit pursued two main strategies of accommodating their differences. Some sought to compromise spatially, negotiating and choosing a destination that would suit most family members.

“Going home” was the main choice for same nationality families, although even for them, there were several challanges to overcome. This was particularly the case for children who were born in the UK and had never lived in the country of origin of their parents and were not fluent in the country’s language.

For mixed-nationality families, the choice was often guided by work opportunities and strength of family networks, as in the case of Nicole and Hemmo.

Others sought to find a solution temporally, planning the exit strategy not as a one-off event but something taking place over a longer period. Some members of the family would emigrate first and the rest of the family would join at a later stage.

When Brexit leads to divorce

Our study shows that these accommodations were not always successful. Diverging and or conflicting aspirations leading in some cases to family breakups.

Maria, a French mother, told us how the UK’s divorce from the European Union was the reason she ended up divorcing her British husband. When Brexit happened, Maria wanted to talk about its consequences with her husband, but he was not interested.

She then started to think about buying a place in France where she could feel at home, where she could feel safe. As she felt unsupported and dismissed, eventually she decided to return to France alone and divorced her husband. She hoped that her grownup children would want to join her at some point in the future but that is far from certain:

This is what Brexit is costing me really. This is the biggest thing. To force me to not live in the same country as my children and possibly to not live in the same country as my future grandchildren as well, if they might settle down in the UK, which looks fairly probable.

Maria’s story and the many others we collected show that going “home” is easier said than done. Return journeys can expose intricate intergenerational tensions, challenges, and accommodations, especially for people who have had children in the UK and don’t know any other home.

EU citizens were often seen protesting in the pre-Brexit years.
Shutterstock/Ms Jane Campbell

The experiences of the EU families who left Britain show how a major political event such as Brexit reverberates in the lives of real people. Thousands of EU-born Britons who often had lived in the UK for years no longer felt welcome. Many of them eventually left.

As Olga, a Polish woman with two UK-born children, put it:

In the day of the referendum results, my husband and I looked through the window and realised that at least half of those people had voted against us. That’s how it was. So, despite owning a house in the UK, what else, having a wonderful job, in six months we decided to leave.

To many of them, Brexit was a seismic event, and its aftershocks are still being felt after years, but their voices have hardly been heard in the public conversation on Brexit.

Read more:
The UK’s island identity has long shaped its political outlook – is that why it currently feels so adrift?

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