UK-EU couples after Brexit: migrantisation and the UK family immigration regime

This 3 year ESRC-funded project will chart the post-Brexit experiences of UK-EU couples, who had previously enjoyed an almost unconditional right to live in the UK. After Brexit, those whose partnership postdates December 2020, couples living elsewhere in the EU wishing to relocate to the UK after 29th March 2022, and those in the UK where the EU partner does not have settled or pre-settled status or another visa must all apply for spouse/partner visas.

This prolonged and expensive process includes income requirements for the British partner set higher than earnings of around half the working population, and assessments of the ‘genuineness’ of relationships and ‘suitability’ of applicants.  Existing research has documented the widespread negative consequences of the UK’s family immigration rules through family separation, hardship, and inequalities in access to legal status. Those who cannot meet financial requirements often do not apply, and one in five applications are refused. Errors in visa decision-making mean half of human rights appeals succeed – but appeals are costly, lengthy and stressful.

These regulations have long been in place for couples comprising a UK citizen and a partner from outside the EU, but their application to UK-EU couples represents a major change. Although immigration has taken centre stage in political and academic discussion around Brexit, debates have focussed on labour and irregular migration. The neglect of spouse/partner migration (alongside family migration in general) is particularly surprising given the fact that spouses and partners are among the largest sources of long-term migration to the UK, and the frequency of UK-EU partnerships: around 4% of all couples in England and Wales consist of one UK-born, and one EU-born partner. Given the many, continuing connections between the UK and Europe (through travel, family, business, education etc), opportunities for relationships between UK and EU citizens will continue, but little attention has been paid to how such couples will be impacted by Brexit. 

This project responds to this urgent gap in the research agenda on the implications of Brexit. It will document how UK-EU couples respond to the intrusion of immigration regulations into their intimate family lives; what new inequalities emerge in this diverse population; and the impact on political and legal discourses of this expansion of the population affected by immigration regulations. The project will capture the crucial initial phase of incorporation of UK-EU relationships into the UK immigration regime, and how the first cohort of UK-EU couples negotiate this new encounter with legal barriers to their mobility and ability to live together in the country of their choice. It will identify personal, social and political impacts for UK- EU couples; identify groups particularly negatively affected; chart emerging legal, policy, and advocacy developments; and create new perspectives on the regulation of spousal migration.

The team will work with an Advisory Group of key support and campaigning organisations, and findings from the project will inform service provision, interventions in policy debates, advocacy and legal challenges that will improve the lives of UK-EU couples and, through its focus on problems in the family migration regime, all mixed nationality couples subject to immigration control.


Professor Katharine Charsley (University of Bristol, Sociology, Politics and International Studies) is Principal Investigator on this project, working with Dr Helena Wray (University of Exeter, Law School) as Co-investigator.

The project is funded for 3 years starting in January 2023

This project is part of The Centre of Ethnicity and Citizenship, based within the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

This project is associated with the MMB Challenge on Bordering, control, justice