British expats in a post-#Brexit EU: What now?

| June 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

The UK has voted to leave the EU and Brexit talks have begun. But what about the fate of British expats in Europe. What will happen to them? What are the current plans for them, asks Martin Banks?

Those among the estimated 1.8 million expat Britons who have lived on mainland Europe for 15 years or more were denied a vote in the UK general election on 8 June.

But, if Britons living in the EU were angry about not voting in the election (or the EU referendum last year that will take the UK out of the EU), can you imagine how they feel about possibly being denied their democratic rights once again?

That is precisely what many of the British expats in Belgium and throughout Europe fear when the UK finally leaves.

One of the most important yet most difficult aspects of Brexit will be sorting out what happens to UK citizens in other EU states (as well as EU citizens from other member states currently in the UK).

We’ve known for a while that citizens’ status is going to be one of the first topics tackled in the upcoming negotiations. But what is not known yet is just how complex such a process will be.

Around three million EU citizens, many of them Poles, currently live in the UK. They have to go through a lengthy 85-page application process in order to become a permanent British citizen, and the number doing so has reportedly soared since Britain voted to leave in June last year.

Of course, British expats living in Europe are able to go down a similar path and take out nationality of the country in which he/she resides.

This writer, for example, is doing just that. After moving to Brussels for work back in September 2001, I’ve decided it would be best to go for dual nationality – British and Belgian.

This was a decision, largely taken to (hopefully) remove the huge uncertainty that current exists as regards the rights, post Brexit of myself and most other Brits who live and work on mainland Europe.

As a journalist I have written many articles in recent weeks about the potential problems expat Brits could face when the UK finally extricates itself from the EU.

The problems relate to continued entitlement to a range of rights – pensions/benefits, social security, health, freedom of movement, legal status and so on – that  most expats have blissfully taken for granted since moving abroad.

Sadly, it has become ever more apparent that people in my position will no longer be able to assume that these apparently legal entitlements will continue to apply in the future.

Regardless of personal circumstances, it is obviously important to have one’s legal position resolved sooner rather than later – and if that means taking out Belgian nationality, what’s to lose?

The process, in fact, appears to have been a damn sight easier and less painful in Belgium than seems to have been the case for many EU citizens who have sought to take out British nationality since the referendum.

A few forms to be completed, some translation work, a couple of hundred euros in fees, and (all being well) that appears to be that. In fact, the hardest bit was in having to obtain an original copy of my birth certificate and, if truth be told, that was pretty simple too.

Oh, would that the process was as straightforward for EU citizens in the UK.

The respective Brexit negotiating positions of the UK and EU are now available to the public. The UK’s position is primarily set out in the February white paper and the Article 50 notification letter, sent in March. The white paper states: “We want to secure the status of EU citizens who are already living in the UK, and that of UK nationals in other Member States, as early as we can.“

Long-term UK residents of other EU countries include around 300,000 in Spain. France and Germany also host large numbers of British citizens and there are about 300,000 British expats in Belgium, many working in the EU or other international organizations.

The free movement of people is a core principle of the EU and, in practice, means EU citizens including Brits enjoy unrestricted, free movement across the 28-nation bloc, including in and out of the UK.

Citizen rights are at the top of the negotiator’s lists of priorities but lobby group “Expat Citizen Rights in EU” (ECREU) says the future prospects for expat Brits is far from certain.

A spokesman said: “The truth is no one knows what Brexit could mean for us expats. It all depends on the outcome of negotiations by our politicians. What we do know, is that most of our rights and privileges as expat citizens living in the EU only exist by virtue of the UK’s membership.”

Some claim that under the terms of the Vienna Convention on International Treaties between states concerning ‘Acquired Rights’, that all European expats would be protected. However, France – for one – has not signed the treaty, and neither it seems has the EU.

ECREU says that if the 69,000 retired UK citizens in France alone (about 450,000 UK retirees reside in all EU states) returned it would have a major effect on the UK economy both for the returnees and certain public services.

Sue Wilson, chair of “Bremain in Spain”, points out that on 23 June last year, some British citizens across Europe could not vote in the EU referendum because of a ban on voting for Brits who have lived overseas for more than 15 years.

She said: “They were denied the opportunity to vote on their own futures, when they are amongst the most likely to be badly affected by the outcome. To say that many people were upset and angry is a gross understatement.”

Disenchanted with the failings of this supposed “democratic exercise” she now campaigns for the rights of British citizens in Spain and elsewhere.

Sue says: “Little did I know almost one year on we would be in the same position.”

Whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, she and others like her will fight to protect the rights and freedoms she enjoys as an EU citizen, adding, “not some rights and freedoms, all of them”.

She said: “It seems that the EU agrees that we should keep all our existing rights and freedoms for life. I am waiting for the day when we hear the same reassurances from the UK government. I am not holding my breath.”

Since the referendum, many thousands of British citizens living in the EU have decided not to take a gamble on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, but to apply for permanent residence in the country where they live.

They include British national Fraser Cameron, director of the Brussels-based EU/Asia Centre, who said: “Like many British expats I have decided to apply for Belgian nationality and enjoy life in a modest, unassuming, open and tolerant country – the exact opposite of Brexit England.”

Fellow Brussels-based Brit Dennis Landsbert-Noon said: “The EU has always been crystal clear in saying what it wants for British expats living and working in EU member states after Brexit, as well as for EU citizens living and working in the UK.

“Theresa May’s government by contrast has committed itself to nothing. Its policy of silence is equivalent to holding millions of expats (both Brits and non-Brits) to ransom and it demonstrates graphically what an appallingly bad EU member state the UK has become in recent years.”

He added: “Like millions of Brits living abroad, I am now ashamed of my nationality.”

For EU citizens in the UK seeking British nationality, the procedure for many has turned into a nightmare. It is expensive and cumbersome; as mentioned, the application form is 85-pages long, showing the EU has no monopoly on bureaucracy.

EU citizens in the UK also face a rejection rate of almost a third if they want to stay in Brexit Britain.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophia In ‘t Veld, who recently tabled a written question to the Commission claiming many expats are already facing discrimination, said: “I have been inundated with heartbreaking correspondence from EU citizens in despair. People are frightened.

“This is why a number of MEPs have come together to form a task force to seek to speak up for the rights of EU nationals in the UK and also for the UK nationals currently living in the EU. Brexit might mean Brexit, but surely, it should not mean that millions of people’s lives are turned upside down?

“It is vital that citizens know all the facts around this case, for if this requirement was in fact deemed unlawful, this could save millions of people unnecessary anguish in the months and years to come.”

She added: “The European Parliament has made it crystal clear the rights of citizens are our number-one priority, and we are not ready to sign off any Brexit deal that does not offer good prospects for EU citizens in the UK or British citizens in other EU countries.”

Further comment comes from Richard Corbett, a UK Socialist MEP who said: “The biggest Brexit impact at the moment is uncertainty.”

Thousands of citizens on both sides of the channel will be hoping this cloud of uncertainty will soon be lifted.


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Category: A Frontpage, Brexit, EU, UK

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