The number of European migrants in the UK is almost exactly balanced by the number of Britons living elsewhere in the EU, according to official figures.

About 1.8m Britons live in Europe, with Spain boasting an expat population of just over 1m UK citizens, according to government estimates. Of the Britons living in Europe, 400,000 are claiming a state pension from the UK. That compares with an estimate of 2.34m EU citizens living in the UK, according to the latest official figures from Nomis – the National Online Manpower Information System, a service provided by the Office for National Statistics – based on passport records.

Lord Oakeshott, the senior Liberal Democrat peer who uncovered the figure in a parliamentary question, said the high numbers of Britons abroad proved that freedom of movement was a “genuine two-way street”.

“As many Britons work or retire across the Channel or the Irish Sea as other Europeans come here,” the Lib Dem peer told the Financial Times.

“Anti-European scaremongering by Ukip [the UK Independence party] and their Tory fellow travellers doesn’t just damage investment and society in Britain – if it goes on, it could poison the atmosphere for 2m of our fellow countrymen in the rest of Europe.”

But hostility to migrants is growing in the UK amid growing public disquiet, and pressure from Ukip, over the lifting of work restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants at the beginning of the year.

David Cameron has responded to political pressure by warning his European neighbours that Britain may veto future enlargements, including the accession of countries such as Serbia and Albania, unless new rules are agreed to stop “vast migrations”.

Britain is also tightening rules on access to benefits for EU migrants by forcing new arrivals to wait three months before they can claim unemployment benefit in an effort to reassure voters that the UK is not a soft touch for so-called “benefit tourism”.

The rhetoric from the UK is stoking hostility around Europe , with pre-eminent Polish politicians speaking out in recent weeks.

László Andor, the European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, will on Monday challenge the political rhetoric in the UK.

“The truth, and it might be inconvenient for some, is that the vast majority of people who move from one EU country to another do so in order to work. They don’t do it in order to claim benefits,” Mr Andor will tell an audience at Bristol university.

The European Commission points out that the UK has still failed to provide any evidence of “systematic or widespread” benefit tourism, despite being asked for proof over the past couple of years.

“All that we have received is a series of anecdotes about cases of criminal fraud and vicars performing sham marriages,” Mr Andor will say.

The FT revealed last month that Downing Street had shelved a government report on EU migration because it failed to find evidence to support the case for tighter restrictions on immigrants.

The report was one if several papers commissioned by Mr Cameron to explore the pros and cons of EU membership for Britain as part of efforts to negotiate a better deal for London in Brussels before the proposed 2017 referendum on EU membership.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, said comparison was difficult. “These [figures] are not like for like: Lots of Brits abroad are successful people living in second homes in Spain or France. Most Brits living abroad are not aggressive beggars or sleeping rough on the streets: just comparing headline figures doesn’t tell the whole story.”

The estimates of UK citizens living in the EU released in the parliamentary answer are based on 2010 figures, while the numbers on EU migrants in the UK are derived from 2011 Nomis statistics.

This article is subject to a clarification and has been amended.

Get alerts on European Union when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article