British expats join forces across Europe to tackle Brexit

A coalition of groups representing Britons living in EU nations joined forces Thursday to defend their rights as Britain readies to pull out of the bloc and thousands of expats worry about their future.

British expats join forces across Europe to tackle Brexit
Photo: AFP

In an “Alternative White Paper” timed to coincide with the British government's launch of its blueprint for Brexit, organisations representing British citizens living in Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy called for their rights as EU citizens to be preserved after the pull-out.

“The (Brexit) referendum gave no mandate to alter the rights of these people,” read the document drafted by Jane Golding and Jeremy Morgan, two British lawyers living in Germany and Italy respectively, and endorsed by 10 groups, including Bremain in Spain.

“It was no part of the (pro-Brexit) Leave campaign that their rights should be torn up, quite the contrary.

“It is therefore essential that whatever steps are necessary to protect these rights are taken, and taken as a matter of urgency to bring an end to the anxiety that they are feeling about their personal futures and those of their families.”

The document called for expats' pre-Brexit rights to be included in EU withdrawal negotiations and explicitly guaranteed in a final agreement “so as to give it the force of international law.”

It is estimated at least 1.2 million British citizens live in the 27 other EU member states, though that number could be far higher. 

Chief on their minds are healthcare, pensions, the right to work, to study, and to generally remain in their country of residence – all of which are addressed in the “alternative white paper.”

In Spain, for instance, which counts a huge British community, many of them pensioners who have moved to better climes, healthcare is a huge concern, particularly with the fall in the pound following June's referendum.

For now, it is covered by Spain's social security system under EU mechanisms that allow Britons to receive the same treatment as locals, and many would not be able to pay if that right were taken away.

The “alternative white paper” also highlighted the case of professionals such as nurses or architects whose qualifications are recognised EU-wide, and would have to re-qualify in their country of residence.

 “It's very important to speak with one voice,” Golding, a member of Germany's “Brits in Europe” association, told AFP.

“These are real people, real lives, real problems we're facing.” 

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.