Brexit and the uncertainty facing expats in the EU and the UK

Tuesday, 20 June 2017 13:11
Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a British journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has been based in Brussels since 2001, specializing in EU Affairs coverage.


The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU but what about the fate of British expats in Europe and EU citizens in UK. What will happen to them? What are the current plans for them?
The free movement of people is a core principle of the EU and in practice means that EU citizens, including Brits, enjoy unrestricted movement across the 28-nation bloc, including in and out of the UK – until now, at least.

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

Sue Wilson is chair of “Bremain in Spain” and 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”.

Whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, she and others like her will fight to protect the rights and freedoms they enjoy as EU citizens, adding, “Not some rights and freedoms, all of them”.

We have 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. The negotiating position of the UK simply 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“.

British expats in the EU

The plight of EU citizens in the UK has been well documented, but one of the often-overlooked consequences of the Brexit vote is the situation of British citizens living in the EU. Many UK citizens have used their right to free movement and settled in Europe. Some have been living in Europe for years, if not decades.

They have fallen in love and married in EU member states, they have built a career in Europe, bought a home and have children or grandchildren on the continent, many of whom have British nationality. Some have set up businesses or are studying in Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere. Most have contributed to European society.

Since the referendum, many thousands of these citizens 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. Teresa May's government by contrast has committed itself to nothing”.

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

How I applied for Belgian citizenship

This writer, after moving to Brussels for work back in September 2001, has also 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 currently exists regarding 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 recently 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, etc. – that I and 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 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 EU 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.

EU citizens in UK

Around three million EU citizens currently live in the UK. They have to go through an expensive and cumbersome process in order to become a permanent British citizen. The application form is 85 pages long, showing that the EU has no monopoly on bureaucracy.

The number applying for British citizenship has reportedly soared since the Brexit referendum. EU citizens in the UK face a rejection rate of almost a third if they want to stay in Britain after Brexit.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie 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 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”.

She adds, “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 UK Socialist MEP Richard Corbetta 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.

Only time will tell the final fate of those affected, but in the meantime, myself, like many of my fellow British expats, will likely be taking the safe road of naturalisation in our host countries.

By Martin Banks

What could be at risk?

Law

States have the power to impose any law of their own on “foreigners”. For example, before the EU, France taxed capital being brought into the country. EU countries could impose any law they wished on non-EU citizen-held bank accounts.

Citizenship

All citizens from one country without dual nationality could become foreigners in the EU state in which they live. Any protection enjoyed under EU law could cease.

Voting

After Brexit, you may not be able to vote for your local commune councillors in Belgium or become a commune councillor.

Taxation 

Double taxation treaties exist to ensure that citizens do not have their incomes or pensions taxed in the UK and again in the country where they choose to live. Spain has been inundated with cases of expats living there who are finding that local Spanish tax officials are already refusing to honour the UK/Spanish Convention on Double Taxation.

Buying goods 

The freedom to buy items from outside your country of residence could be limited.

Working 

Some form of work permits would probably be needed for people who seek work or wish to set up their own businesses. Applicants would be viewed as foreigners. Professional qualifications gained in an EU country are recognised throughout all member countries, but we do not know if this will apply after the UK leaves.

Pensions and benefits

The existing EU regulation that protects receipt of UK state pensions and benefits could cease to have effect. The UK would have the power to modify the receipt of state pensions in Europe and even stop annual increments.

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