Germans in Scotland: How Brexit has changed their view of the UK

Brexit is not only causing concern among Brits in Germany – it also hugely affects Germans in the UK. The Local spoke to German students in Edinburgh to find out how they feel.

Germans in Scotland: How Brexit has changed their view of the UK
The British, Scottish and EU flags fly outside the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. Photo: DPA

German Doner Kebab is a restaurant chain that does exactly what it says on the tin. The walls are bedecked with kitschy black-and-white photos of famous German sights: The Brandenburg Gate, Cologne Cathedral, Dresden, the Berlin Victory Column, and so on.

Yet this landmark-laden eatery is not set in the Bundesrepublik, but rather in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital city.

According to the UK Census, in 2011 there were 22,274 Germans living in Scotland. Five years after that census was taken, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union. 

Despite voting by 62% to remain in the EU, Scotland has no choice but to follow its southerly neighbour out the door. How do Germans residents in Scotland feel now that Brexit is finally coming to pass on Friday?

On a Thursday evening in January,  a group of students from the University of Edinburgh meet up at German Doner Kebab on Lothian Road – a meetup they have dubbed Dönerstag.

This is German Society, a mixture of native German speakers and learners of the language. They organize events such as flat crawls, academic talks and screenings of Germany’s answer to John Oliver, the heute-show.

We tuck into our meals; on my right is Thomas, an Economics student from Potsdam near Berlin and the group’s treasurer. Across the table is Jan, who is here on an exchange semester and is also from Potsdam. Eva, the society’s academic secretary who is from Bonn and is also studying Economics; and Lara, who is from London and is studying French and Spanish. They are all 21, with the exception of Lara, who is 20-years-old and has a German father.

The fact that they wouldn’t have to pay any tuition fees was a big incentive to study in Scotland. Thomas also liked that a Scottish Bachelor’s degree is four years instead of three: “I wanted to have dorm life in my first year, you don’t really have that in Germany.” 

Eva adds: “The degree here is a lot more flexible, you get more options.” The range of clubs and societies was attractive, too. Jan was keen to be in an English-speaking country in order to practice his English skills. 

Would they recommend studying here? “10 out of 10!” Thomas enthuses.

READ ALSO: Can Brits still move to Germany after Brexit day?

Thomas and Lara in Edinburgh. Photo: Chris Dobson

It was a surprise’

Marvin is a 28-year-old PhD student at the University of Glasgow, originally from Essen. He came to Scotland in September 2018 and has found Glaswegians to be “welcoming and open”. 

He’s a member of Glasgow European Society and enjoys the university’s “international bubble”. In addition to friends and colleagues from around the world, Marvin now has a boyfriend in Edinburgh.

When asked about Brexit, Marvin – who is researching Economic and Social History – takes a long time to think. “It was a surprise but I wouldn’t say it was a shock,” he finally responds.

“In Germany, British politics had the reputation to be straight to the point, to be able to make compromises, to concentrate on the facts, and I think that reputation is gone. Now British politics is seen as something ridiculous.” 

Marvin says that he would respect the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, but he is sceptical whether the Conservative UK government would allow this.

‘Quite detached’

Has Brexit changed their perception of Scotland and the UK? Actually, Thomas remarks that he is surprised how little people talk about it. 

Eva comments: “I feel like the whole university community is quite detached from it.” When I ask what their thoughts are on Brexit, they reply that they are “100 percent” against it. “Everybody in Germany thinks that the UK made a major mistake,” Thomas says.

READ ALSO: Brexit will shift the EU's new centre to a German village of 80

“You can see that quite a lot in the way the media talks about it,” comments Eva. “It’s obviously not what they should be doing.”

Lara is a bit more concise: “I think it’s a shitshow. Nothing has happened in politics for three years. Let’s get on with it and let something else happen.”

“All the negotiations have been annoying people as well,” adds Thomas. “If you want to be out, leave.”

They express scepticism about Scottish independence, but also sympathy. “I think it’d be great for Scotland but I don’t know how well Scotland could hold up for itself,” Thomas says.

Despite sharing Thomas’ doubts about an independent Scotland’s sustainability, Lara declares: “I would be in favour. Just because England fucked up doesn’t mean Scotland must.”

Whereas in England Lara, who is half-German, has experienced some anti-German sentiment, in Scotland the students have received a warm welcome. 

“There are so many international students,” Thomas says with evident delight. “It’s such a normal thing to meet people from different cultures and countries.”

The German Doner Kebab restaurant, where the group met on a Thursday evening. Photo: Alexandra Person

‘Always something new’

Thomas doesn’t even mind the Scottish weather, and he likes that Edinburgh is “small enough that you know your way around and can get to places easily but it’s not too small where you always go to the same thing.”

Jan agrees: “You always find something new and exciting.” Lara says that she likes how walkable the city is: “You can walk everywhere.”

Just as Berlin isn’t the be-all and end-all of Germany, Edinburgh isn’t the only side to Scotland. Forty miles to the west is Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. 

Although he continues to be baffled by the lack of double-glazing in some houses, Marvin says he would definitely recommend Glasgow to other Germans, although if they’re from a city like Munich which is known for its history and culture, they might prefer Edinburgh.

Marvin adds that he enjoys a deep-fried Mars bar, making him right at home in Scotland.

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OPINION: Pre-Brexit Brits in Europe should be given EU long-term residency

The EU has drawn up plans to make it easier for non-EU citizens to gain longterm EU residency so they can move more easily around the bloc, but Italy-based citizens' rights campaigner Clarissa Killwick says Brits who moved to the EU before Brexit are already losing out.

OPINION: Pre-Brexit Brits in Europe should be given EU long-term residency

With all the talk about the EU long-term residency permit and the proposed improvements there is no mention that UK citizens who are Withdrawal Agreement “beneficiaries” are currently being left out in the cold.

The European Commission has stated that we can hold multiple statuses including the EU long-term permit (Under a little-known EU law, third-country nationals can in theory acquire EU-wide long-term resident status if they have lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years) but in reality it is just not happening.

This effectively leaves Brits locked into their host countries while other third country nationals can enjoy some mobility rights. As yet, in Italy, it is literally a question of the computer saying no if someone tries to apply.

The lack of access to the EU long-term permit to pre-Brexit Brits is an EU-wide issue and has been flagged up to the European Commission but progress is very slow.

READ ALSO: EU government settle on rules for how non-EU citizens could move around Europe

My guess is that few UK nationals who already have permanent residency status under the Withdrawal Agreement are even aware of the extra mobility rights they could have with the EU long-term residency permit – or do not even realise they are two different things.

Perhaps there won’t be very large numbers clamouring for it but it is nothing short of discrimination not to make it accessible to British people who’ve built their lives in the EU.

They may have lost their status as EU citizens but nothing has changed concerning the contributions they make, both economically and socially.

An example of how Withdrawal Agreement Brits in Italy are losing out

My son, who has lived almost his whole life here, wanted to study in the Netherlands to improve his employment prospects.

Dutch universities grant home fees rather than international fees to holders of an EU long-term permit. The difference in fees for a Master’s, for example, is an eye-watering €18,000. He went through the application process, collecting the requisite documents, making the payments and waited many months for an appointment at the “questura”, (local immigration office).

On the day, it took some persuading before they agreed he should be able to apply but then the whole thing was stymied because the national computer system would not accept a UK national. I am in no doubt, incidentally, that had he been successful he would have had to hand in his WA  “carta di soggiorno”.

This was back in February 2022 and nothing has budged since then. In the meantime, it is a question of pay up or give up for any students in the same boat as my son. There is, in fact, a very high take up of the EU long-term permit in Italy so my son’s non-EU contemporaries do not face this barrier.

Long-term permit: The EU’s plan to make freedom of movement easier for non- EU nationals 

Completing his studies was stalled by a year until finally his Italian citizenship came through after waiting over 5 years.  I also meet working adults in Italy with the EU long-term permit who use it for work purposes, such as in Belgium and Germany, and for family reunification.  

Withdrawal agreement card should double up as EU long-term residency permit

A statement that Withdrawal Agreement beneficiaries should be able to hold multiple statuses is not that easy to find. You have to scroll quite far down the page on the European Commission’s website to find a link to an explanatory document. It has been languishing there since March 2022 but so far not proved very useful.

It has been pointed out to the Commission that the document needs to be multilingual not just in English and “branded” as an official communication from the Commission so it can be used as a stand-alone. But having an official document you can wave at the immigration authorities is going to get you nowhere if Member State governments haven’t acknowledged that WA beneficiaries can hold multiple statuses and issue clear guidance and make sure systems are modified accordingly.

I can appreciate this is no mean feat in countries where they do not usually allow multiple statuses or, even if they do, issue more than one residency card. Of course, other statuses we should be able to hold are not confined to EU long-term residency, they should include the EU Blue Card, dual nationality, family member of an EU citizen…

Personally, I do think people should be up in arms about this. The UK and EU negotiated an agreement which not only removed our freedom of movement as EU citizens, it also failed to automatically give us equal mobility rights to other third country nationals. We are now neither one thing nor the other.

It would seem the only favour the Withdrawal Agreement did us was we didn’t have to go out and come back in again! Brits who follow us, fortunate enough to get a visa, may well pip us at the post being able to apply for EU long-term residency as clearly defined non-EU citizens.

I have been bringing this issue to the attention of the embassy in Rome, FCDO and the European Commission for three years now. I hope we will see some movement soon.

Finally, there should be no dragging of heels assuming we will all take citizenship of our host countries. Actually, we shouldn’t have to, my son was fortunate, even though it took a long time. Others may not meet the requirements or wish to give up their UK citizenship in countries which do not permit dual nationality.  

Bureaucratic challenges may seem almost insurmountable but why not simply allow our Withdrawal Agreement permanent card to double up as the EU long-term residency permit.

Clarissa Killwick,

Since 2016, Clarissa has been a citizens’ rights campaigner and advocate with the pan-European group, Brexpats – Hear Our Voice.
She is co-founder and co-admin of the FB group in Italy, Beyond Brexit – UK citizens in Italy.