‘Brits abroad could face catastrophic consequences of Brexit, but I’m cautiously optimistic’

On Saturday, as EU leaders met in Rome to celebrate the bloc's 60th birthday, thousands of British citizens joined Marches for Europe across the continent, to show their support for the union.

'Brits abroad could face catastrophic consequences of Brexit, but I'm cautiously optimistic'
'We'll always be European'. Photo: British in Italy

“This wasn't an 'anti-Brexit' march and we don't want to reverse Brexit – it was a march generally in favour of Europe,” explains Jeremy Morgan, the spokesperson for British in Italy.

The group has been campaigning to push the rights of British citizens abroad to the top of the agenda in Brexit negotiations.

British in Italy counts over 600 members and works together not only with other groups of Britons in EU countries, but also with the 3 Million, the biggest group of EU citizens living in the UK.

“These people shouldn't have to suffer because of the UK's decision to leave the EU,” Morgan adds. “This is a question of fundamental justice.”

Yet he argues that the potential “catastrophic consequences” to Brits abroad don't seem to have registered with those at home – or simply aren't seen as a priority.

“In the UK, I think there's a stereotype of Brits abroad sipping prosecco or champagne in the sunshine, a stereotype the pro-Brexit press has been hammering for years,” explains Morgan. 

“Our concerns don't feature in most people's minds – some people think we 'deserve' to lose the right to work, access to healthcare or even face being sent back home, just because we chose to move to a warmer country! And the UK government – contrary to its claims – has made little effort to find out who British living in the EU actually are.”

In fact, the majority of Britons living in Europe are working, and their number includes young families as well as people who worked in England and then chose to retire abroad.

Morgan, a retired lawyer, moved to Spoleto in the green heart of Italy with his Australian wife three years ago. 

“It's just not right to uproot people's lives, and if any one of the rights they currently have is taken away, some people will be 'sent back home',” he tells The Local. “People's ability to continue their lives and making a living depends on how this is resolved.”

The group has given evidence to the House of Commons Committee for Exiting the European Union, lobbied to get an amendment to the Brexit Bill passed in the House of Lords, and put their case to officials in Rome's British Embassy.

The group which gave evidence to the House of Commons Committee, with Jeremy Morgan second from left. Photo: Private

Next on the agenda is lobbying European politicians, and Morgan and his colleagues are already in contact with politicians from Italy's ruling Democratic Party. While they were sympathetic to the group's cause and will be setting up a commission to look at individuals' rights in the negotiations, Morgan says he isn't sure many of those tasked with the decision-making fully appreciate the complexity of the issues, or the ways in which people have already been affected by the vote. 

“We haven't had any hostility from Italians, so from that point of view it's OK, though it might be a different picture for European citizens in the UK,” he says.

However, while some people have had to seek medical treatment for anxiety over Brexit, the group has also had reports from others who have been given information by Italian local authorities which is probably not correct.

Some of the group at Saturday's March for Europe. Photo: British in Italy

The key points on the group's agenda are ensuring that reciprocal healthcare arrangements and mutual recognition of qualifications stay in place. While the former issue is particularly crucial for retirees, people in professions such as hairdressing – the largest professional group of Brits in Italy by some way, according to EU figures – or law would be affected by losing their right to work abroad if forced to re-qualify from scratch. 

So far, Morgan is satisfied with the group's progress.

“I believe we've been successful in getting the rights of individuals moved to the top of agenda, both in the UK and in Europe,” he says. “Both sides seem to be saying that these will be prioritized so there's cause for cautious optimism – but there's so much that could go wrong. I'm not sure how hopeful I feel.” 

As for when the affected individuals can expect a guarantee of their rights, that's equally unclear.

“We hope that this is discussed as the number one issue, before the many, many years we are told trade negotiations could take. It's urgent to look at the future of families on both sides of the channel.”


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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.