OPINION: ‘Ring-fencing citizens’ rights should be a serious consideration in case of no-deal Brexit’

As the clock ticks down to Brexit, Britain and the EU should seriously consider ensuring an agreement on reciprocal citizenship rights, regardless of whether a framework for trade and the broader relationship is reached, argues academic Michaela Benson.

OPINION: 'Ring-fencing citizens' rights should be a serious consideration in case of no-deal Brexit'
Anti-Brexit protesters in Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
“There have been suggestions that citizenship rights should be ring-fenced. This should be a serious consideration in case of a no-deal Brexit,” Michaela Benson, a professor at Goldsmiths University in the UK and a sociologist investigating British communities in Europe, told The Local.
The text agreed on in March this year by the UK and the EU, known as the Withdrawal Agreement, was widely derided at the time for its watering down of citizenship rights, in particular the loss of freedom of movement for British citizens in the EU post-Brexit.
Jane Golding, chair of grassroots rights group British in Europe, noted at the time that Cheddar cheese could end up having more rights than British citizens.
Fast forward seven months and Brits in the EU and member state citizens in the UK – between 5 and 6 million people – have more to fear in what the British government continues to call “the unlikely scenario” of a no-deal Brexit.

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“If the Withdrawal Agreement is ripped up, British citizens would overnight find themselves as third country nationals. That is why it is vital they demonstrate lawful residency now,” Benson told The Local.
As third party nationals they would come under the jurisdiction of the domestic migration governance regime and their migration would no longer be governed by EU law.
In such a scenario, “it would be surprising if Brits as migrants were not subjected to visas,” says Benson, “a much more complicated system.” It is also unlikely that Brits would then be afforded any special terms as third party nationals – besides those applying for specialist visas (investment, talent, student, IT etc) – as there is no legal binding for such preferential treatment.
Many Brits are racing to gain dual citizenship in their host state, or to amass the right paperwork. But as Benson notes, “seasonal workers will be hit hard” by any agreement.
“Younger, itinerant people will find themselves not covered,” adds Benson.
The Withdrawal Agreement entitles settled Brits who can prove five years of lawful residency in a host state to a residency card and at least another five years of residency in that country beyond the transition period. But the agreement so far on citizenship rights is dependent on the EU and the UK reaching a broader agreement on trade, regulation, the Irish border and many more issues.
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In a letter last month to the EU and UK negotiating teams, British in Europe and the 3 Million pleaded for citizenship rights to be ring-fenced.
“You jointly have it within your powers to end this nightmare immediately for over 4 million of us, by taking the true moral high ground and publicly committing to honouring these agreements on our rights – whatever the outcome of the rest of the negotiations,” states the letter.
Given the generous proclamations that both sides have made vis-a-vis maintaining the rights of their negotiating counterpart’s community, it would be farcical if some sort of arrangement were not reached. Theresa May last month in Salzburg pledged to protect the rights of the three million EU citizens in the UK, “deal or no deal.”
France’s Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau told a meeting of French citizens in the UK that her country would remain “vigilant” of its citizens’ rights.
“We will be your advocates to make them (residency conditions) as flexible, as simple and as inexpensive as the British have committed themselves to,” Loiseau told the gathering in London last month.
The UK’s Ambassador to Spain Simon Manley called on Spain to reciprocate the offer. “We hope the Spanish government will offer a guarantee like we have done,” Manley told reporters early last week, according to Spanish daily La Vanguardia.
“There is a difference between saying things about British citizens and actually reaching out to them,” says Benson, noting that many EU states are yet to publish any guidelines for resident UK citizens.
“The French government has told Brits to apply for a carte de séjour and devolved instructions to councils to issues them to British citizens. The Netherlands have also been quite proactive,” Benson told The Local.

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images/AFP
Guidelines updated last week by the Dutch government encourage Brits to apply for an EU residence card, although this will expire on March 29th . “You may continue to live and work in the Netherlands after Brexit. But, this is not certain because there is no definitive agreement yet,” note those guidelines.
In many states though, a wait-and-see attitude still prevails – primarily because most countries need to know whether the Withdrawal Agreement governing future rights of citizens will take shape after March 29th or not. “We haven’t got any further on the outstanding issues. There is no solution to freedom of movement yet,” says Benson.
“The headline is still that there needs to be clear guidelines issued to British citizens and governments need to continue to issue those guidelines.”
If an agreement is reached, it could effectively create a two-tier status for Brits vis-a-vis their rights to settle in Europe.
“There is also the issue of how British citizens who have not yet exercised their treaty rights to freedom of movement will be treated in the future,” clarifies Brexit Brits Abroad’s Benson. “Citizenship rights discussions are purely about people who have already moved.”
Earlier this year, Benson co-authored a report on the challenges of getting a good deal for British citizens in Europe.
As one official cited in Next Steps: How to get a good Brexit deal for British citizens living in the EU-27 states: “We still do not know what the rules will be in the end, so we cannot answer the questions very concretely.”
That report highlighted the difficulties many Brits could face, especially in countries where registration is not mandatory, to prove lawful residence if EU countries enact “retrospective as supposed to prospective” requirements for residency post-Brexit.

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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.