Lies, damned lies & EU citizens

Over the past decade, as British politics became increasingly dominated by Europe, the presence of foreign EU citizens in the UK has been of central importance to both sides of the debate. Before the 2016 referendum, the Leavers made great play of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. And after the referendum, the Remainers saw the position of European residents in Britain as a key moral issue.

But how many people were we talking about? Here are some random cuttings from newspapers over recent years:

‘No rational person could individually begrudge any of the 2.3 million EU nationals who have settled in our country in search of a better life.’ – 2013 [i]

‘There are two million British people living in European countries, and two million European people living here.’ – 2014 [ii]

‘Under Mr Farage’s plans the four million EU nationals living in Britain on foreign passports – including his German wife Kirsten – should not be allowed to vote.’ – 2015 [iii]

‘The latest employment figures show that in September there were two million EU nationals (excluding UK citizens) living in Britain, 324,000 more than the previous year.’ – 2015 [iv]

‘A record 2.1 million European Union nationals are working in Britain.’ – 2015 [v]

‘There are now more than 3,000,000 European nationals living in Britain, with 268,000 arriving in the past year alone.’ – 2015 [vi]

‘Official figures suggest that 257,000 EU migrants came to Britain last year, but over the same period 630,000 EU citizens registered for a national insurance number.’ – 2016 [vii]

‘More than two million EU nationals are living in Britain.’ – 2016 [viii]

‘Figures compiled by the United Nations suggest there are now 2.9 million EU nationals living in Britain.’ – 2016 [ix]

‘Today’s figures [from the Office for National Statistics] also show that 5.6 million people living in Britain … are foreign citizens. They comprise 3.2 million EU nationals and 2.4 million citizens of countries outside the European Union.’ – 2016 [x]

‘During a debate on the Brexit Bill, the Prime Minister [Theresa May] said that without the contribution of more than three million European nationals Britain would be “poorer” and public services “weaker”.’ – 2017 [xi]

‘According to the latest data, there are currently about 2.26 million EU nationals working in Britain.’ – 2017 [xii]

‘Most of the 3.5 million EU nationals currently living in Britain work in middle or low-income employment.’ – 2017 [xiii]

‘The [European] Commission estimates that there are 3.2 million European nationals living in Britain who would all be automatically entitled to permanent resident rights under British settled-status proposals.’ – 2018 [xiv]

‘Almost four million EU nationals currently live in Britain.’ – 2018 [xv]

‘[Boris] Johnson repeated previous promises to protect the rights of the 3.2 million EU nationals already living in Britain.’ – 2019 [xvi]

‘[A Downing Street announcement] raised a question mark over the rights of some of the three million EU nationals who live in Britain.’ – 2019 [xvii]

‘[The Home Office needs to] redesign border control in a way that works for the three million European Union nationals living in Britain.’ – 2020 [xviii]

In short, no one seemed to have any idea. Last week, however, we finally got some clarity with an objective measurement. And it turned out that all of those previous figures were very wide of the mark:

‘Home Office figures released on Thursday show 5.42 million people have applied for settled status.’ – 2021 [xix]

see also:

How many jobs rely upon the EU?

[i] Sunday Telegraph 20 October 2013

[ii] Daily Telegraph 22 April 2014

[iii] Daily Telegraph 14 March 2015

[iv] Guardian 26 November 2015

[v] Times 12 November 2015

[vi] Daily Express 14 December 2015

[vii] Daily Telegraph 5 March 2016

[viii] Independent 11 March 2016

[ix] Armenpress News Agency 30 March 2016

[x] Evening Standard 25 August 2016

[xi] Evening Standard 7 February 2017

[xii] Agence France-Presse 13 February 2017

[xiii] Times 18 April 2017

[xiv] Times 23 January 2018

[xv] Agence France-Presse 21 June 2018

[xvi] Daily Telegraph 26 June 2019

[xvii] Evening Standard 19 August 2019

[xviii] Daily Telegraph 6 March 2020

[xix] Guardian 13 May 2021

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