Case study

Rights of EU nationals in the UK

We are shaping agendas on the rights of EU nationals residing in the UK through innovative academic and practice collaboration.

Airport sign for passport control for UK and EU passports.

The issue

The right to equal treatment is enshrined in EU law, but does equal treatment exist in reality? Or are migrants from the EU treated differently from UK nationals?

The research

This research project compiled an ethnography of the problems encountered by EU nationals during the course of welfare claims, focusing on the effects on women, older people and disabled people.

Working directly with EU nationals, through Citizens Advice offices and setting up a specialist advocacy service through York Law School, the project offered advice and advocacy in relation to both individual claims and in developing the knowledge and skills of advisers.

This advice-led ethnography was a new way to interrogate EU law. It combined socio-legal studies with theoretical, philosophical and historical work on EU social law. It yielded rich data that revealed injustices that would often otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The research documented the effects of legal changes to the entitlements of EU nationals, including the effects of administrative obstacles (such as language demands, extra evidential burdens and the degree of coordination between different national benefit offices) and the political context in which these sit.

We found that the combined administrative, political and legal obstacles rendered systemic negative effects on access to justice for EU nationals in the UK and the recognition and enforcement of their rights.

The project subsequently provided the basis for further research into issues raised by Brexit. Through analysing policy and legislative options for the rights of EU nationals in the UK, shortcomings and discriminatory effects of proposals are often identified.

The outcome

The EU Rights Project and subsequent research, especially throughout the Brexit process, have improved the extent to which rights in EU law provide real and effective protections for EU nationals residing in the UK.

It has had a particularly strong focus on welfare rights such as housing and benefits for vulnerable individuals. With the outcomes giving the claimants and their families security and stability they had not previously had.

The project has led to many positive outcomes, including:

  • directly securing rights for individuals with tangible and sometimes life-changing effects, empowering their advisers through our work with Citizens Advice Bureaux
  • influencing the policies and practices of organisations and institutions that have the power to make systemic and legal change that will affect the rights of the widest range of EU nationals, including the EU Commission, the EU Parliament, the UK Parliament, and the legal profession.

Additional information

Featured researcher
Charlotte O'Brien

Charlotte O'Brien

Professor O'Brien's research interests include EU social law, UK public law and human rights law.

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