With Brexit looming, many EU nationals have yet to apply for settled status in the UK

Identity crisis.
Identity crisis.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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For the more than 3 million citizens of EU countries who live in the UK, Brexit is a bureaucratic nightmare. In order to stay in Britain past June 2021, EU citizens have to apply for special status, a process that, while begrudgingly offered free of charge, is anything but simple. “Settled” status is given to EU nationals who have lived in the UK for five years before applying, who can then stay in the UK indefinitely and apply for British citizenship a year after they get the status. “Pre-settled” status goes to those living in the UK for fewer than five years but before the end of 2020 or the date of a no-deal Brexit. It allows holders to live in the UK for five years and then choose wh ether to apply for settled status.

At the end of last month, 1,759,400 EU nationals had applied for settlement (including 2,800 Irish applicants, even though Irish citizens do not need to apply). This implies that many EU nationals living in the UK haven’t yet applied for the status that will allow them to stay in the country after Brexit. For example, 347,300 Poles have registered for settled status as of the end of September. Data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics show that there were an estimated 905,000 Polish citizens living in the UK at the end 2018.

There are plenty of reasons why EU nationals in the UK may be waiting to apply for settled status—after all, they are supposed to have until at least December 31, 2020 to do so (in the case of a no-deal Brexit). Maybe they’re waiting to see what happens on Brexit day, or maybe they’re waiting for the application to be available on iPhones, which is meant to go live this month.

There was a surge of applications in August and September, perhaps in response to comments by UK home secretary Priti Patel, who said that the free movement of EU citizens to and from the UK could end abruptly on October 31, the current Brexit deadline, in the event of a no-deal divorce.

The top 10 groups of EU nationals who have applied for settled status in the UK more or less reflect the ranking of the largest groups of EU nationals living in the UK, suggesting that these citizens are applying in roughly equal proportions to how many of them live in the UK.

This doesn’t tell the whole story, subject to some important caveats about the data. Estimates of the number of EU nationals living in the UK are imprecise and only reflect the population as of December 2018. They count all individuals with a particular citizenship, which could also include dual nationals with British passports who don’t need to apply for settled status. Some of these residents may have recently left the UK, or may not plan to apply for settled status at all. Still, the stats are useful to establish rough estimates of the makeup of the UK’s population of EU citizens, and compare it to the composition of settlement applications received to date.

To take the Polish as an example again, around 20% of the EU settlement applications received as of last month came from Polish nationals, but Poles account for an estimated 27% of EU nationals living in the UK. This tracks with recent anecdotal reports that Poles are under-applying for post-Brexit settlement. The Polish ambassador to the UK, Arkady Rzegocki, recently described the number of Poles applying for settled status as “alarmingly low.”

Among the many reasons why this may be the case, Marie Le Conte, a French journalist living in the UK, writes that it could be simple denial: “Maybe the way you have managed to deal with months and years of Brexit tedium and assorted attacks on Europe and its citizens was by not quite admitting that it was happening, or at least not to you.”