Brexit: What Now for the UK and Eastern Europe?

Erika Fedorova
Cover image by TNGO illustrator Marija Sta

The United Kingdom left the European Union on 31 December 2020. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement details the framework for cooperation between the UK and EU post-Brexit. The three pillars of the Agreement cover Trade, Security, and Governance. The new Free Trade Agreement focuses on economy, transport, institutional and environmental protections, fishing, and energy. It also pinpoints social security coordination for the rights of EU nationals in the UK and vice versa. The Security aspect focuses on cooperation in criminal and civil law matters, including terrorism. Finally, the Governance section entails the implementation of the Agreement itself by assuring clarity for businesses, consumers, and citizens, and establishing mechanisms to resolve potential disputes concerning the Agreement.

Overall, the Agreement characterizes the UK’s future relations with the EU as a whole, but it also raises interest as to what future cooperation may specifically exist between the UK and Eastern Europe. These regions were primarily linked through their mutual membership of the EU and, consequently, by migration from the East as a spill-over effect of this membership. Can the UK and Eastern Europe still sustain a link, or will ties between them inevitably loosen? Regardless of whether future cooperation will exist or not, there is potential for Brexit to benefit Eastern Europe politically and economically.

Migration and Attitudes Towards Brexit

Eastern European migration to the UK after 2004 created, perhaps, the biggest link between the two regions. Although EU nationals account for approximately 5.5% of the UK population, the new membership of countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary to the EU has forged extensive social, political, and economic ties between the UK and Eastern Europe. However, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, net migration to the UK by EU8 citizens (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia) has dropped.

Throughout the early 2016 negotiations to implement EU reforms proposed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, disagreements persisted between the UK and Eastern European countries over EU migrants in the UK. In fact, the majority of the latter came from Eastern Europe. These points of disagreement included the length of the ’emergency brake’ for in-work benefits for new EU workers in the UK, as well as restrictions on child benefit payments to EU migrants.

EU-born migrants estimated to be living in the UK Source: The Migration Observatory

Eastern European migration to the UK became a focal point surrounding the Brexit vote. Rhetoric about migration became blurred and negative attitudes towards the surrounding (non-EU) refugee crisis were also ascribed to EU migrants. This merely added to existing negative political attitudes towards EU migrants in the UK and soon became a key contributing factor to the decisive ‘Leave’ vote in the Brexit referendum.

Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May described rising EU migration as “unsustainable” and associated immigration with the poor economy, depleting public services, and declining social cohesion. Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has regarded migrants as individuals taking advantage of the UK and treating it “as though it’s part of their own country”. He used this statement to emphasize the need for a points-based immigration system. Government statements like this helped reinforce an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ approach among British nationals and EU migrants.

Eastern Europe’s Response

Much of Eastern European sentiments on migration, in light of the 2016 negotiations and the subsequent Brexit proceedings, were of caution and defense. In response to David Cameron’s proposals to curb migrant benefits, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared that Hungarian migrants in the UK “belong to the world of the fair working people”; they were not “parasites”. Despite that, he later expressed contentment with the UK and EU’s initial Withdrawal Agreement (2018), for the protection it afforded to migrants in the UK. Slovakia’s Prime Minister at the time of the Brexit vote, Robert Fico, asserted that Britain would not be allowed to make “second-class citizens” out of EU workers in the UK.

Poland has displayed a particularly cautious approach, urging Polish migrants in the UK to secure their residencies and pressing the UK Government to protect their rights. However, the Polish Government has also encouraged its citizens to return to Poland which extends from Poland’s need to boost its domestic economy with higher employment. In this sense, Brexit is arguably an opportunity to drive more Polish citizens back to their source country. Nevertheless, the annual Intergovernmental Consultations between the UK and Poland will support an independent relationship between the two. Much of these consultations are focused on shared security and economic priorities, signifying some elements of continuity of their former EU membership.

UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and Polish Foreign Secretary Jacek Czaputowicz at the 2018 UK-Poland Intergovernmental Consultations

The UK has now implemented a new points-based immigration system, designed to bring in skilled workers with preliminary job offers. The Government maintains that the system will treat EU and non-EU citizens equally. EU migrants living in the UK before 31 December 2020 can apply to have ‘settled status’, allowing them to stay. Although the new system poses greater obstacles to new migrants arriving from the EU, including Eastern Europe, it maintains protections for EU migrants already living in the UK. Those were, after all, the people that source countries’ governments were primarily concerned about, hence the regions remain linked via migration. However, migration is no longer facilitated under an open and communal ‘free movement’ framework.


The UK and the majority of Eastern European countries are still connected through their mutual membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO is a military alliance with a political focus on ensuring security for its members and resolving conflict. Through principles such as collective defense, its members are unified in facing international conflict.

Much of this alliance is in place to counter Russia, a neighbor of the EU’s and NATO’s Eastern European members. Ongoing disputes between NATO and Russia concern the respective parties’ activities throughout bordering regions. In November 2020, a NATO exercise in Romania launched missiles into the Black Sea, near the Crimean Peninsula. The Crimean Parliament saw this as preparation for an “armed invasion” of Russia’s territory.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the NATO-UK bilateral meeting in Dec. 2019 Source: NATO

Such activities near Russia’s border, deemed as aggressions, will require close and continued cooperation between the UK and NATO’s Eastern European members. This is especially important in asserting the principle of defence, as Eastern Europe will be the first to receive retaliations. Ahead of the UK’s official leave from the EU, Boris Johnson re-emphasised NATO’s mission statement of “peace and security for 29 countries”, promising to “come to one another’s defence”.

The UK has been an active NATO contributor in maintaining defense against Russia on Eastern European territory. Therefore, while cooperation under the EU framework will cease to exist, NATO will preserve a security alliance between the UK and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, NATO is strictly a military organization, hence it will do little to make up for the loss of much broader political and economic partnerships previously ensured by EU membership.

Post-Brexit Gains for Eastern Europe: Manufacturing

Economically, Eastern Europe will still make gains where the UK made losses following Brexit, even if ties between the two become weaker. The East’s manufacturing industries boomed as the UK’s declined. For example, the UK car industry declined by 80% as automobile manufacturers began relocating to Eastern Europe. A report highlighting the effects of Brexit on Japanese companies in the UK revealed that one company moved all of its manufacturing to Poland, while another moved some of its manufacturing to Hungary. Other companies also considered relocation to Eastern European countries, such as Romania. British company Jaguar Land Rover established a factory in Slovakia in 2016.

Firms have moved their manufacturing to mainland Europe due to a fear of rising import and export costs, as well as increased business regulations as a result of Brexit. With a continuing membership of the EU and the single market, Eastern European countries allow companies to avoid these costs, in addition to the lower labor and processing costs that the region provides. Director of Germany’s Center for Automotive Research Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer has stated that Eastern Europe, along with Turkey, is “significantly more cost-effective” for automobile production.

Jaguar Land Rover’s £1bn manufacturing plant in Slovakia Source: Jaguar Land Rover

Post-Brexit gains for Eastern Europe: Unity

The UK’s departure from the EU has also created space for stronger relations within the Union. EU enlargement since 2004 defined a new framework of cooperation and shared values between the EU and its new members; namely those in Eastern Europe. However, enlargement also highlighted gaps between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ members (the UK being a part of the EU’s ‘old’ members).

Economically, Eastern Europe has been perceived as lagging behind Western Europe, but, at the same time, it was also being exploited for the benefit of the West. Politically, obstacles to establishing a common European vision have also lingered. The political systems and priorities of Eastern European nations are typically at odds with those of Western Europe, including areas such as non-EU migration and democratization.

Source: EU

However, Brexit will likely harmonize relations within the EU, including relations between ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states, as well as relations between the ‘new’ member states and the institutional center. Those differences previously at the forefront of intra-EU relations are likely to be scaled down following Brexit.

A strengthened manufacturing hub in the East will contribute to a reduced economic gap between Western and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the UK’s leave will also foster new harmony among the 27 members; defining new common political values and underlining the priority to remain within a union of states.

What has changed?

Ultimately, the greatest link between the UK and Eastern Europe continues to be migration. NATO preserves a security partnership between the regions, but it lacks the political and economic relationship previously provided by mutual EU membership. Through social relations and mutual economic benefits, the link of migration is currently the strongest factor sustaining this political and economic relationship. Nevertheless, Eastern Europe has been able to reap independent economic and political benefits as a result of Brexit. This can arguably level the playing field between Eastern Europe and the UK in a way not previously capacitated by the EU.

  • As EU migration to the UK caused controversy, will Brexit now ease the UK’s attitude towards Eastern Europe?
  • Considering the UK’s new immigration system and its settlement scheme, can we expect any real changes in the migratory link between the UK and Eastern Europe?
  • Will the benefits of Brexit to the EU’s Eastern European members outweigh the costs of the UK’s leave for the EU?

Suggested Readings

Cohen, Roger (2020). “Brexit’s silver lining for Europe”. The New York Times, 31 December, 2020.

Reed, Jessica (2018). “The future of Eastern Europeans in Post-Brexit United Kingdom”. European Institute of Romania Working Papers Series, 36, October, 2018.

Shea, Jamie (2020). “The UK and European defence: Will NATO be enough?”. The Foreign Policy Centre, 16 December, 2020.

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Brexit: What Now for the …

by Erika Fedorova time to read: 7 min