Emigration Nation

by Michaela Benson and Les Back

12 November 2019
Originally published in our Old Blog.

‘Britain needs to remember that it is an emigration nation as much as it is an immigration nation’ says Michaela Benson in this month’s edition of Street Signs podcast. She talks to Les Back about her work on Brexit and the experience of UK citizens living in the EU.  Michaela’s original and thoughtful perspective offers a very different perspective on the current debate the UK’s decision to leave the EU. We see Brexit from the point of view of the plight of millions of citizens of Britain living overseas. Michaela shows how Britain’s histories emigration that was in many respects of its imperial past.

The podcast focuses on a new paper published in the Sage journal Sociology entitled Brexit and the classed politics of bordering: the British in France and European belongings. It brings to light how British citizens living in France are trying to secure their right to stay in Europe. Michaela argues that Brexit is unevenly experienced, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and generating new fault lines of belonging among the British in France as they are repositioned in relation to hierarchies of European belonging. In many respect the research reveals the presumptions that freedom of movement was never entirely unconditional and it always required mobile workers to demonstrate that they wouldn’t be a burden on the host state.

The ideal mobile European citizen always privileged skilled male middle class workers with high levels of education and cultural capital. So as the uncertainties of Brexit start to unfold the stratifications within freedom of movement start to be revealed and people who are elderly or who have disabilities are suddenly the most vulnerable in the post Brexit scenario. Freedom of movement always privileged the economically active and it is those people who are also in the best position to cope as UK Citizens living in the EU as the difficult realities of Brexit loom.

In this podcast Michaela Benson outlines the complexities of this current situation and we learn about Brexit not confined to a small island mentality but within Europe and the UK citizens who have made their home there.

Michaela Benson is Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University; and former Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Brexit Brits Abroad is her research project examining what Brexit, as it unfolds, entails for British citizens living and working in the EU-27, exploring in particular questions of citizenship, identity and belonging.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of CUCR.