What happens next in the fight to protect rights of Britons in Europe?

The battle to protect the futures of Britons against the impact of a no-deal Brexit achieved a "historic" victory this week when MPs forced PM Theresa May to seek a deal with Brussels to ring-fence their rights. So what happens now?

What happens next in the fight to protect rights of Britons in Europe?
Is it actually possible to change the negotiating mandate? Photo: AFP

Campaigners were celebrating victory on Wednesday night when the so-called Costa Amendment, named after Conservative MP Alberto Costa, was adopted by the British parliament with the government's support.

The amendment, which had the support of both Leave and Remain-supporting MPs cost Costa his job in the government but was warmly welcomed by campaign groups such as British in Europe.

The amendment forces British Prime Minister Theresa May to seek a deal with the EU, at the earliest possible opportunity, to ring-fence the citizens' rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement before Brexit Day – currently March 29th.

Ring-fencing citizens' rights is something campaigners have long called for given the possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal and the impact that would have on the futures of British immigrants throughout the EU, whose existing rights would be lost immediately unless countries decide to act.

But what does the result of the amendment mean in reality?

The Conservative government, despite supporting the bill, were doubtful that they could persuade the EU to ring-fence rights.

On Tuesday Theresa May suggested the EU “did not have the legal authority to do a separate deal on citizens' rights without a new mandate”.
However, the3million group, which campaigns for the rights of EU citizens in the UK, say their own legal experts suggest she is wrong.
Speaking on Wednesday, government minister David Lidington said the EU had previously made it clear that it would not allow just the citizens' rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement to stand on its own.
But he says the government will now take it up with Brussels and see if they can be persuaded to change position.
On Thursday the European Commission suggested they would not be prepared to negotiate ring-fencing, however campaigners believe that stance was inevitable and not overly significant.
So what happens now?

Kalba Meadows from British in Europe (BiE) and Remain in France Together (RIFT) explains: “The amendment requires Theresa May to formally approach the European Council – the EU27 leaders – to request that Part 2 of the Withdrawal Agreement (the part that covers citizens' rights) be implemented under Article 50 even if there is no deal on the entire agreement.”

“To be more precise: what the European Council will be asked to do is to change their negotiating mandate – that set out in the European Council Guidelines of 29 April 2017, setting out the mandate for the Commission which said that 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed'.”

BiE's Meadows says it's essential that be done before the Article 50 expires on March 29th – the date the UK is currently set to leave the EU, unless Brussels and London agree to push it back, as is expected. 

“What we're after here isn't any old agreement, but an agreement under Article 50 which becomes a legally binding international treaty.

“It's this that would give our future rights proper protection so that they wouldn't be at the vagaries of future governments in any of the EU28 countries.”

Countries across the EU have been passing laws or at least pledging to, to offer protection to British citizens in the event that Britain leaves the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. But those laws often depend on reciprocity from the UK and in the case of France left Brits worried about being able to meet new rules on minimum income levels.

But the big question is, is it actually possible or is Theresa May right when she says the EU does not have the legal authority to change their negotiating mandate.

“British in Europe has been working hard on this with our friends the3million for a long time, and the legal minds among us are in no doubt that this is all legally possible … given the political will,” said Meadows.

British in Europe and The3Million have vowed to keep a close watch on proceedings and to pressure EU countries to back the move.

“This is the beginning of the process, not the end, and ring fencing is far from being a foregone conclusion,” said Meadows but noted that the passing of the Costa amendment was nevertheless “historic” in the nearly three-year fight for citizens' rights.

“Rarely has any amendment or clause on anything gained as much cross-party support as this one did, right from the Greens to the DUP to Labour, moderate Tory and ERG to boot. Citizens' rights are back on the agenda,” she said.


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.