How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe

For many of the 1.2 million Brits living in the EU, as well as the 3 million EU citizens in the UK, a no-deal Brexit threatens a spate of life-changing repercussions. And the process is taking a toll on people's mental health.

How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe
Photo: DepositPhotos

“The whole Brexit process has been incredibly abusive and traumatic,” Denise Abel, formerly a psychotherapist for 30 years in the east of London, told The Local from her home in central Italy.

“Keeping people in limbo for over 900 days is abuse,” she added, referring to the time that has passed since the shock referendum result.

In a September 2018 survey of 300 Brits in the EU, conducted by Brexpats Hear Our Voice, 284 respondents said they were suffering from stress or anxiety.

More than two thirds said they had suffered financial losses because of the devaluation of sterling; more than half of those surveyed responded that they now faced strained relations with family or friends and find themselves distracted from work and day-to-day activities. At least a third of respondents said they had trouble sleeping since the referendum.

Facebook groups like Brexpats Hear Our Voice, Remain in France Together, or British in Europe's country chapters often serve as the only support groups for Brits living in the EU and experiencing the in-limbo effects Brexit is having on their lives. 

There are no official figures about the impact Brexit is having on the mental health of some of the most vulnerable British citizens living in the EU. Most people The Local has interviewed recently estimate that “thousands” of Brits across the EU are experiencing extensive stress, anxiety and depression linked to the uncertainty about their futures.

In Limbo Too: Brexit Testimonies from UK Citizens in the EU. Photo: Clarissa Killwick. 

It isn’t just Brits in the EU either.

There are several groups of EU citizens particularly vulnerable to Brexit in the UK. The Roma community, for example, who are mainly itinerant; those sectioned under the Psychiatry Act; EU citizens who moved to the UK and have expired documents. These are just three examples of groups of EU citizens particularly vulnerable to Brexit, according to the chair of campaign group the3million, Nicholas Hatton.

Widows are also particularly prone to Brexit depression, French Senator Olivier Cadic told The Local in a recent interview.

READ ALSO: 'The rights of 5 million people should never have been up for negotiation': chair of the3million

The Existential Academy, a UK-based volunteer company that focuses on psychotherapy and counselling, even has a dedicated outreach program called the ‘Emotional support service for Europeans’. “The Existential Academy in association with the Society of Psychotherapists provides an emotional support service for EU citizens resident in the UK and whose mental health has been adversely impacted by the uncertainty and emotional upheaval caused,” says the project’s website.

In Limbo and In Limbo Too, authored by Elena Ramigi, are a collection of testimonies of EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU respectively. Both shed light on the plight that many in those demographics are facing. 

Those books relied on people being able to express their grief, anxiety and stress in public. “Having been involved in the book, I know that there are many vulnerable people who were too frightened or didn't feel well enough to make a contribution to the book,” Clarissa Killwick, who was involved in the research, told The Local.

“The loss of our home is less worrisome than Brexit”

When Denise Abel and her husband moved to Italy in 2012, they didn’t expect to end up living in subsidized 40 square-metre emergency housing. But after an earthquake destroyed their host village of San Pellegrino di Norcia in central Italy, in October 2016, that is what happened. Their home was turned into rubble.

“We have been re-homed four times since the earthquake,” Denise told The Local. 

The stone house Denise, 62, and her husband Richard, 64, purchased and restored in Umbria was razed to the ground in what was the most powerful earthquake in Italy for more than three decades. 

Amazingly, neither incurred serious injuries. Despite the strength of the earthquake, nobody was killed, even if the old historic centre of Norcia and the surrounding areas, where Denise and Richard owned a home, were largely destroyed.

Denise Abel and husband Richard's former home in San Pellegrino di Norcia before October 2016…

…and the rubble after the earthquake. Photo: Denise Abel. 

Suddenly displaced, the couple spent a week with friends, then moved to another nearby town for two months, before buying a caravan and returning to their destroyed adopted hometown. Shortly before Christmas 2016, Denise and her husband were re-sheltered in one of 600 temporary homes built by the Italian government to accommodate earthquake victims.

READ ALSO: Italy 'on its knees' after biggest earthquake in 30 years

Besides the trauma of being struck by such a natural disaster, Denise has had to contend with the added uncertainty of being a Brit in Europe. “The loss of our home, devastating though it was, is far less worrisome than the potential consequences of Brexit. 900 days of uncertainty takes a toll,” Denise told The Local. 

“The anxiety around Brexit is huge for me”

Anxiety and stress have become mainstays for many Brits in Europe watching the Brexit process unfold. There is hardly any light at the end of the tunnel for thousands, if not millions, of vulnerable Brits now trapped between a rock and a hard place. Brexit threatens EU-based Britons’ healthcare, their access to work and education, the lives of their children, and much more.

Research conducted by advocacy and support group Brexpats Hear Our Voice also highlights how Brexit is taking its toll on the morale and psyche of many Brits in Europe.

In many cases, women are the most disproportionately affected demographic – single mothers with children, for example.

“I am happy to share my story because the anxiety around Brexit is huge for me,” says Joanna, a single mother of five children surveyed by BHOV, whose name has been changed to respect her wishes. “No German partner, no German job, reliant on social money,” adds Joanna, outlining her circumstances.

Two of Joanna’s children have special needs. In 2012, Joanna and her partner separated; in 2013 she gave up her job to look after her two autistic boys full time.

“My children have good schools and therapists and luckily the German system allows me to be home with them. But I honestly don't know how we will be if we have to leave,” she says, adding that any move would uproot her children and entail severe financial difficulties.

READ ALSO: What you should know about the Brexit deal if you're British in Germany

READ ALSO: 'They're fleeing Brexit': More Brits moving to Germany despite uncertainty

Helen (again, name changed) has been in France since 2002. She has her own concerns about how her career could be derailed by the loss of freedom of movement, but she is equally concerned about some of her most vulnerable acquaintances.

“I know one person, for example, who is mentally unstable and unable to deal with his affairs. And lots of pensioners and 'just getting by' families who definitely don't meet income requirements and in some cases are on French benefits or at least income top ups,” says Helen in BHOV’s study.

For many elderly British citizens living in the EU, concerns revolve around access to healthcare. “I have three 'pre-existing' conditions – lymphoma (eleven years in remission); atrial fibrillation and tachycardia; COPD, asthma, bronchiectasis, and emphysema. My medication costs are +/- €300 a month,” Simon, 67, told BHOV’s researchers.

Simon says a no-deal Brexit would force him to return to the UK, as the costs of health insurance are unaffordable – between 12,000 and 23,000 GBP per ear.

READ ALSO: British in Italy plan emergency meeting as prospect of no-deal Brexit looms again

“Should there be no agreement, we will have no choice but to sell our house here and return to the UK, where my medical costs will be borne by the NHS exactly as they are now,” added Simon.

“We won’t be entitled to healthcare under a no-deal scenario.”

For Denise Abel in Italy, the future is uncertain. 

“At the moment we are eligible for reconstruction funds, which are dependent on us being residents in Norcia. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, we would no longer be eligible,” she told The Local.

While Italian authorities are unlikely to evict an elderly British couple from their subsidised temporary accommodation, technically they could if Brits in Italy become ‘clandestini’, paperless migrants, after March 29th, 2019. Brits are set to become illegal migrants if the UK exits the EU without a deal, according to grassroots campaign group British in Europe.

The temporary, government-provided accommodation in which Denise and her husband Richard now live. 

Denise and her husband are both on daily medication, another cause for anxiety looking ahead. “We won’t be entitled to healthcare under a no-deal scenario. Our S1 ([EU health insurance scheme] depends on getting the deal through,” says Denise. Local doctors will only give prescriptions for a single month ahead.

This leaves Denise and her husband Richard in a difficult situation, whereby their best option, should a no-deal unfold, would be to try and obtain a couple of post-dated prescriptions from their doctor on March 28th, 2019 – the latest possible date for such a medical contingency plan.

It isn’t just medical concerns that couples like Denise and Richard have. Denise’s husband is an engineer who works with waste oil. “He’s losing work because of the uncertainty,” Denise told The Local: employers are simply unable to confirm contracts for Richard without knowing what his future legal status will be.

Just over 100 days before the expiration of Article 50, Brits in Europe still don’t know whether they will be left in a residential no-man’s land after March 29th next year.

READ MORE: Merkel still has 'hope' for an orderly Brexit

Member comments

  1. We often see quoted the number of 5,2 million (1,2 + 3 million) citizens affected. This leads those with (no adverse effects on their lives) as being “only” 5,2 million.

    In reality 5,2 is the number of registered EU citizens who are displaced following Brexit. As every registered citizen I know in this position has a spouse and family that would not be registered the 5,2 is misleading. When you add (unregistered) spouse, children and parents it is therefore not unreasonable to multiply this figure by 3 or 4 to arrive at the true number of lives in limbo.

    A sobering thought that 17,4 million people in the UK voted to put the lives of 18,2 million other people’s lives into turmoil for a nefarious set of undeliverables.

  2. Correction 5,2 should have been 4,2 and 18,2 should have been 14,7 based on average of 3,5 and 16,8 based on average of 4 – too much sherry in the trifle I guess!

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How Brexit has changed life for Brits living in Denmark

Since Britain left the European Union, Brits living in Denmark have been deported, forced to change their jobs, and faced a long list of new bureaucratic hassles. Here are some of the problems our readers have highlighted.

How Brexit has changed life for Brits living in Denmark

EU figures out in January indicated that only about 40 Brits in Denmark had so far been ordered to leave the country as a result of Britain leaving the European Union, a fraction of the 1,050 ordered to leave Sweden. Some 350 Brits in Denmark missed the deadline for post-Brexit residency. 

But Brexit is still far from popular. A full 76 percent of the Britons in Denmark who responded to our survey said that Brexit had affected them either “quite” or “extremely” negatively (42.3 percent and 34.6 percent respectively).

Only one respondent said that their life had been very much improved. 

Here are some of the ways people said Brexit had made life less convenient and more expensive.  

Losing the right to stay in Denmark

William, an account manager based in Copenhagen, was deported from Denmark after failing to apply for post-Brexit residency in time and is even now trying to find out if the decision to deny him residency will be reversed and whether he might be entitled to compensation. 

The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI) failed to send letters to as many as 1,800 British people informing them of the deadline. 

“Siri failed to notify me of the requirement to update my status, I got deported and I experienced stress, anxiety and sickness due to the year-long application and appeals process,” he complained. 

Denmark’s immigration minister Kaare Dybvad Bek said last month that the roughly 350 British nationals who risk losing their right to live in Denmark after missing the deadline to apply for a post-Brexit residency permit would get a reprieve. Bek said on February 10th that his department would “present a solution soon”. 

READ ALSO: Britons told to leave Denmark over late residence applications could get reprieve

“Siri have not yet decided what they will do regarding making changes to finalised decisions that were affected by the rejection of appeal,” William said. 

For another British woman living in Copenhagen, Brexit means her UK-based husband can only visit her in Denmark for three months in every six month period, with his passport getting stamped every time. 

“It’s usually enough, but if we wanted to visit France for a month that would count too,” she said. 

Having to handle a work, residency, or study permit 

Brits not eligible for post-Brexit residency now need to apply for a work permit, family reunion, or study permit to get residency in Denmark, which several of those answering the survey complained was difficult, costly and involved long delays. 

“This is so annoying,” wrote one reader, who works in the pharmaceuticals industry. Registering for post-Brexit residency had been “a hassle”, agreed a music industry professional.

A 50-year-old woman from Scotland who married a Dane post-Brexit said her application for residency to come and live with him had been rejected on the first attempt, and that she had been so far unable to find a job. 

“For two years, I’ve been living an uncertain life worrying about the future,” she said. 

Susan, 41, said she found it frustrating not to be able to bring family members from the UK to live with her in Denmark. 

READ ALSO: How can you get a work permit in Denmark if you are not an EU national?

Extra hassle getting personal number or bank account

Hannah said that it had taken significantly longer for her to get a Danish personal number (CPR) than it had for her Swedish husband and children. 

“Getting CPR, bank accounts etc took a lot longer than rest of family, who are Swedish,” she complained, adding that she was as a result applying for Swedish citizenship. 

Unable to get a long-term lease on a car or a monthly mobile phone contract 

The pharmaceuticals industry professional blamed Brexit for his inability to get a car through private leasing, although one major car manufacturer told The Local that all that was required was to have a registered address in Denmark, a Danish social security number, and a good enough credit rating.  

“I tried several private long-term leasing companies, but they simply told me that they couldn’t lease a car even though I work for a big pharmaceutical company with a permanent position,” he said. “The main problem is my work permit is of type J. If you leave the EU with the car, they wouldn’t know where to find you. Even if they knew when I was, the cost of prosecuting someone in a non-European country is too high.”

He also complained that he had been unable to get a monthly contract from his mobile phone provider meaning he could not upgrade to the new iPhone.

Problems keeping business going 

David Darlington, 58, closed down his import and distribution company Food From Home after more than 18 years after Brexit, as it became too difficult to import British goods to Scandinavia. 

“One of the reasons I lost my business was because of Brexshit,” he wrote in the survey. 

Problems with post and customs charges 

Almost everyone who answered the survey complained of the way Brexit had made sending and receiving post and parcels more difficult. 

“I had to produce receipts for Easter eggs which my dad had sent to my children. The supermarket receipt wasn’t good enough and in the end I told them to return the parcel,” complained Matt, 47, a Brit with Danish citizenship.

“I’ve stopped ordering books and other items from Amazon UK because of uncertainties with tax regulations,” he added.

“My sisters have to watch the value of presents they send to my grandchildren to avoid paying import taxes,” said a woman living in Copenhagen. 

Problems exchanging driving licence 

Susan complained about the “difficulty of exchanging driving licence”, even though most UK nationals do not need to take a driving test to exchange their driving licence to a Danish one, provided their licence was issued before the UK left the EU. 

Only people who got their licence after Brexit and who want to keep a higher category than a normal car license, entitling them to tow a heavy trailer, take more than eight passengers, or drive a truck or lorry, need to take a so-called “control test”. 

Harder to buy a house 

“Buying a house involved an extra approval from the ministry and adds additional restrictions,” complained AJ, pointing to the requirement that non-EU citizens apply to the Department of Civil Affairs for permission to buy property in Denmark. 

“You have to prove you have strong ties to Denmark,” she said of the process. “We were lucky. We had a great lawyer who got us through it all and we received our approval from the Ministry in two weeks but some people wait up to 12 weeks and then lose their house.” 

This does not apply, however, if you have already been resident in Denmark for more than five years

Difficult to work part-time in the UK 

“I will have to give up my online teaching for a college in London because I’m not allowed to teach more than six weeks in another country,” complained the woman living in Copenhagen. 

Queues at airport passport control

It can be maddening for Brits to be faced with a much shorter queue for EU citizens at airports in Denmark, while the queue for non-EU citizens edges forward painfully slowly. 

Unable to live and work in other EU countries 

“We only have the right to reside here. Much as we love Denmark, it’s a bit like being trapped,” complained AJ, one of many people who listed no longer being able to get a job in or move to another EU country as one of the major drawbacks.  

Michael, a project manager in the wind industry, said that he faced problems as a result of the limits on how long her can work in other EU countries, with the 90/180 rules only enabling him to work 90 out of any one 180 day period in another EU country. 

“Restrictions on travel throughout EU (90/180 rule. Border crossings and risk of stamps in passport that kick 90/180 rule in,” he said. 

“The only way to regain my European rights fully is by becoming Danish and the rules on this seem to change quite frequently, so as a result life seems more precarious and uncertain,” said Liz, who lives in Zealand. 

One recent retiree who had lived in Denmark for 25 years said she was annoyed that Brexit had lost her “my right to live, work, study, retire in the rest of the EU”, but that she had recently applied for and received Danish citizenship. 

Uncertainty about retiring 

“I am concerned about the future,” said Sandra. “When I retire will I still have the same rights or will I be told to leave?”. 

Uncertainty about extending post-Brexit residency card 

Under the EU withdrawal agreement, British citizens living in EU countries at the time Britain left the European Union were offered post-Brexit residency status indefinitely, but the certificates they were issued were only valid for five years, leaving many uncertain as to what happens when they try to renew. 

“I expect to find it more difficult to obtain permanent residency on completion of the Article 51 Temp Residency I got in 2021,” wrote Ian. 

Feels different 

For many respondents, the biggest change was emotional. Brexit has changed how comfortable and secure they feel living in Denmark. 

“It feels different to be needing a resident’s card, rather than being more a ‘part of the European family’, with the feeling of being ‘on probation’ for remaining,” said Stephen. 

“It makes me feel far away from daughter and friends,” said Caroline, a retiree.