The UK has finally left the EU but many Britons living in France and Spain remain confused and in the dark about what Brexit now means for their future.
That is the key finding of a new report by the research team “Brexit Brits Abroad”, which draws on research conducted during 2017-20 with UK nationals living in the two EU member states.
Between 300,000 and 1 million British people live for at least some of the year in Spain, while approximately 150,000 live in France, making the countries home to the two largest populations of UK nationals in the EU.
“The UK government, and those of other countries, were slow off the mark in thinking about how they might communicate with Britons in the EU about how they should best prepare themselves for the future,” said Dr Michaela Benson, one of the authors of the report.
“The effect of this for British citizens living across Europe has been a continued feeling that they are nobody’s responsibility but their own.”
Crucial unresolved issues include the value of pensions and other income exported from the UK; continued freedom of movement within the EU; and the terms on which Britons in the EU would be able to return to Britain with non-British partners.
These uncertainties are compounded by confusion at the local level. In France, participants in the study reported that many local municipal officers lack the relevant information to give appropriate advice. In Spain, UK nationals are confused about regulations, unsure where to go for advice, and sometimes given misleading advice.
“I am shocked but not at all surprised by these findings,” said Roger Casale, Secretary General of New Europeans and former Labour MP. “We have been warning the EU and the UK government since 2016 that too little was being done to reach out to Britons in Europe. Despite our best efforts many UK citizens in Europe are still in the dark about what the future holds for them.”
Following the referendum, New Europeans set up a Friendship Group on Citizens Rights in the European Parliament with the help of former Labour MEP Julie Ward and a parallel All-Party Parliamentary Group in the House of Commons to campaign for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU.
In the European Parliament, the work is now being taken forward by a newly formed EU-UK friendship group. Building on the previous work, the new group aims to continue to provide a platform for civil society groups to stay engaged. As with the previous friendship group there will be a strong focus on democracy and human rights.
“First stop – citizens’ rights,” said German MEP Terry Reintke (Greens/EFA), one of the key organisers of the new group. “A lot of people are scared about what is going to happen in the next few years and we wanted to be a voice for them and bring up their concerns in the European Parliament.”
Other MEPs leading the initiative include the former French Europe Minister, Nathalie Loiseau (Renew), the former Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski (EPP) and former German Justice Minister Katarina Barley (S&D).
Citizens’ rights figure in the current negotiations between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. At a press briefing on Thursday (5 March), Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator, said that the “rights of 4.5 million European and British citizens must be guaranteed” but did not go into any detail.