Brexit in Brussels: How the UK's EU departure affected Brits in Belgium

Brexit in Brussels: How the UK's EU departure affected Brits in Belgium
Credit: Belga/ Thierry Roge

The Brexit vote in 2016 led some to fear that a "Brexodus" from Belgium's multicultural capital would follow. But others it this would make British citizens more reluctant to leave, and might even bring an influx of new Brits seeking an EU passport. Now more than seven years on, what has the impact of Brexit been on the British population in Brussels?

The Brussels Commissioner for Europe and International Organisation runs the Expat Welcome Desk, which has for years supported foreign citizens living in the capital. But since 2016, it has made a special effort to help UK citizens post-Brexit, whose stay in Europe was thrown into question during the negotiation and transition period.

However, new challenges were presented once the United Kingdom had officially left the bloc after 47 years of being a member.

"UK citizens are an important part of the cosmopolitan tapestry of life in Brussels. For many decades, the Brussels-Capital Region has been home to several thousand UK citizens," said Alain Hutchinson, Brussels Commissioner for Europe and International Organisations.

"The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU does nothing to change the importance of UK citizens for Brussels, but Brexit inevitably had a major impact on these residents."

Delayed decrease

The Commissioner of Brussels carried out research to map and understand the consequences of Brexit for UK citizens living in the region.

In the period leading up to the Brexit vote in June 2016, the number of UK citizens living in the Brussels-Capital Region fluctuated between 8,500 and 9,000 every year, although this does not account for the UK citizens living in Belgium as citizens of another EU state, mostly Ireland.

Whilst data from the regional statistics service IBSA seems to show a sharp drop in Brits after the referendum, this is largely because the rate of acquisition of Belgian nationality picked up significantly.

"More than 2,600 UK citizens acquired Belgian nationality in the years 2016-2022 – equivalent to almost one in three of the UK citizen population of 2016," noted Bryn Watkins, who co-managed the project. "Taking these new dual nationals into account, we estimate that throughout the entire period of negotiations and transition, the UK citizen population actually remained steady."

Brexit goodbye party on Brussels Grand Place. Credit: Belga

Some "new Belgians" may have left Brussels in the meantime, either to other regions in Belgium or to another EU country or to return to the UK. But the data does highlight that rather than leaving the country, UK citizens have largely chosen to put down roots since Brexit. There was no 'Brexodus' after the referendum.

Emigration dipped from an average of 10.1% of UK citizens leaving in a given year between 2010 and 2014 to 9% in 2018-2022. But this still represented around 40% of UK citizens that emigrated within five years after the result was announced.

Notably, there was an uptick in the number of UK citizens coming to Brussels before the end of the transition period. In such cases, Belgium granted new UK arrivals an M-Card, which allows them to live and work in the country provided they arrived before 31 December 2020.

The N-Card was granted to allow cross-border workers to continue their activity.

Turning off the tap

The figures from 2021, the first year after the end of the Brexit transition period, tell a different story. "There was an immediate drop of around 70% in the number of UK citizens moving to Brussels once the new rules took effect," Watkins noted. The same trend was seen in 2022.

The total number of UK citizens who moved to Brussels from abroad in the years 2021 and 2022 is estimated to be around 500, of whom a small number acquired M-cards via family reunification.

Now, even when including people who have become Belgian, the UK population is dropping. "It seems likely that population movements for UK citizens in Brussels will be below replacement for the foreseeable future. More people are leaving or dying than arriving."

Nevertheless, emigration is clearly falling over time, leaving a more static UK citizen community, which is increasingly made up of long-term residents. British nationals who retire in Belgium, meanwhile, often stay there.

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When asked more recently about the impact of Brexit on their future plans, respondents to the survey stated clearly that Brexit had made them less likely to leave Belgium and less likely to move back to the UK. "This result implies that Brexit has made the UK community increasingly anchored in Belgium and disconnected from the UK," said Watkins.

This response was welcomed by Hutchinson, who stressed that the Brussels-Capital Region remains an "open and welcoming place for UK citizens to build careers, homes and families, even if the rules have changed."

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