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RIGHTS

‘Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try’

The EU says it won't negotiate "mini deals" and the "contemptuous" UK government doesn't seem interested in actively pursuing the Costa Amendment. But legal experts say ring-fencing the rights of Britons in the EU is achievable if it was just made a priority.

'Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try'
Photo: vchalup2/Depositphotos

Since June 24th 2016, British citizens in the EU have anxiously awaited news of how their future status in their host countries could change with the UK’s departure from the bloc.

Last week’s so-called Costa Amendment offered renewed hope after nearly 1,000 days in limbo. The amendment, passed by the British parliament, calls for Theresa May’s government to “seek at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

This would effectively mean to secure a deal with the EU to ring-fence the citizens rights of 3.6 million citizens in the UK and 1.2 million Britons residing in the EU – regardless of the outcome of ongoing negotiations and regardless of whether her deal is ratified by parliament.

In a follow-up letter to the EU institutions on March 4th, the UK’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Steven Barclay suggested the UK government has taken a halfhearted approach to the Costa Amendment. 

“The Government’s position remains that the Withdrawal Agreement provides the best way of providing confidence to citizens,” wrote Barclay. “The Prime Minister made clear during her statement to the House on 26th February that the Government recognises the significant challenges related to concluding a ring-fenced agreement,” added Barclay.

READ ALSO: What happens next in the fight to protect citizens' rights?

Rights activists responded with indignation to Barclay’s lukewarm effort to negotiate an international treaty on citizens’ rights with the EU.

“It seems completely contemptuous of the Costa motion,” Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy and one of the key legal experts at rights group British in Europe, told The Local. “They have been given a clear mandate by the UK parliament but they have watered it down so it doesn’t mean anything. It shows what Prime Minister May’s priorities are and citizenship rights are not one,” added Morgan.

Morgan argues that there is legal scope for such an international treaty as called for by the Costa Amendment. “Legally it is not a problem. It doesn’t say how they should reach an agreement. It just requires them to try,” says Morgan, who added that British in Europe will “be lobbying the EU very hard” in order for the idea of ring-fencing to be taken seriously.

Last week, the EU Commission said that it would not be willing to negotiate the citizens’ rights aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement separately, although that may simply have been hard talk in the ongoing negotiations and that stance was largely expected.

“The best way to protect the rights of 4.5 million citizens is through the Withdrawal Agreement,” said Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. “We will not negotiate mini deals,” added Andreeva at a press conference on February 28th. The EU Commission had not responded to Barclay’s letter at the time of writing.

The EU has repeatedly asked the UK government to give a clear idea of its desires and intentions in the Brexit process. As Delia Dumaresq, co-chair of British in Italy points out: “The only thing that has the full agreement of the UK parliament is ring-fencing citizens’ rights.”

Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy adds that with the right political will, and an extension to Article 50, such a treaty on citizenship rights could be achieved – and the extension could be justified to that end. The EU Council would simply need to adapt its negotiating guidelines. 

While the EU has officially said it won’t negotiate citizens rights separately on a pan-European basis, a former Commission official told The Local the most likely way the EU would agree to ring-fence citizens' rights, at least temporarily, was by simply extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit. 

“I would expect the EU to be quite sympathetic to this,” said the former Commission official, who did not want to be named.

“The EU has to be concerned with the rights of its citizens in the UK and wants to protect them.” 

But this kind of short term fix is not what campaigners for the UK citizens in the EU and EU nationals in the UK want.

“What we're after here isn't any old agreement, but an agreement under Article 50 which becomes a legally binding international treaty,” Kalba Meadows, a member of rights group British in Europe, told The Local.  

But with just three weeks to go before their lives are potentially turned upside down, some 4.5 million Britons in Europe and Europeans in the UK still don't appear to be a big enough priority for the EU or the UK.

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

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BREXIT

Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

British nationals living in Italy are becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of news about a reciprocal driving licence agreement post-Brexit, and say the current 'catch-22' situation is adversely affecting their lives.

Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Italy who are currently playing a waiting game on the validity of their driving licences.

Those who are driving in Italy on a UK-issued permit currently have just over six months left before their licence is no longer accepted on Italy’s roads.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

That is, unless a deal is reached between the UK and Italy, or another extension period is granted.

Another extension would mark the third time the authorities have deferred making an agreement on UK driving licences in Italy.

When Britain left the EU at the end of 2020, British and Italian authorities hadn’t reached a reciprocal deal on driving licences.

However, UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences in Italy.

With just days to go before the deadline in December 2021, those still using a UK licence were granted a reprieve when it was further extended for another 12 months until the end of 2022.

But the situation from January 1st, 2023, remains unknown.

In the remaining few months, British nationals driving in Italy who hadn’t converted their licence to an Italian one before January 1st, 2021 face the same choice again: wait and hope for an agreement or start the lengthy and costly process of taking their Italian driving test.

There is still no confirmation on reaching an agreement on driving licences. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Many UK nationals have contacted The Local recently to express their frustration, anger and concern over the situation, explaining how the possibility of not being to drive in Italy would profoundly impact their lives.

For some, it would mean not being able to get to work, losing their independence, not being to reach supermarkets for the food shop in remote areas, or not being able to take their children to school.

And in the meantime, many readers told us it means ongoing worry and uncertainty.

Reader David (not his real name), who moved to the southern region of Puglia shortly before Brexit hit, tells us he now finds himself in a “horrible catch-22 situation”.

He summed up the feeling among many of those who contacted The Local by saying: “It is highly concerning and not at all helpful for mental or physical health in a period when we are trying to settle in to a new life in Italy.”

He points out that, for him, retaking his driving test and getting an Italian licence would also mean having to sell his car and buy one with a less powerful engine.

“I realise that if I pass the Italian driving test and obtain an Italian licence, then I will be a neopatente (new driver) with three years of serious restrictions,” he says.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting an Italian driving licence post-Brexit

Newly administered licences in Italy carry restrictions including on the maximum engine size of the car the holder may drive, tighter speed limits on the motorway and extra penalty points for breaking them.

“In this situation, I am honestly dis-incentivised to get the Italian licence unless there seriously is a real ‘no deal’ scenario on the table,” he says.

“Because if I get an Italian licence now – and of course I could choose now to invest a lot of time and money to get it – and then an agreement is reached to exchange licenses, then I might find myself in a worse position than if I just waited to do an exchange.”

“I am sincerely hoping for an agreement to be reached for experienced drivers with a UK licence.”

James Appleton lives in Milan and says he feels “frustrated about the situation”. Although he concedes that he lives in the city with all the convenience that implies, he is worried about having a car sitting outside his flat that he can no longer drive from January.

“The frustration now is with little over six months left of the year, advice from the authorities has continued to be quite unhelpful,” he tells us.

“We keep hearing, ‘consider your options’. I know my options: I have to start the process of taking a test, which is expensive and lengthy, and which may turn out to be unnecessary, or wait until the end of the year. Those have been my options for year and a half,” he adds.

Frustration for many British nationals still waiting on a post-Brexit driving licence agreement. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

“I feel very much in limbo. If it gets to November and we still haven’t heard anything, I risk having a car that I can’t drive from January as my licence may no longer be valid.

My hope would be if there’s not to be a deal, let us know so there’s time to take the test,” James says. “I don’t want to find out with a week to go, like last year.”

He points to the fact that many other non-EU countries have reciprocal driving licence agreements with Italy, so why not the UK? Meanwhile, Italy is one of only two countries in the EU still not to have made a deal on driving licences.

While he said he didn’t want to sound “entitled”, the lack of clarity was simply confusing.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about driving in Italy on a British licence

Like many others, he tried but didn’t manage to convert his British licence in time as he moved to Italy shortly before the Brexit deadline.

James registered as a resident in December 2020, leaving little time to begin the conversion process. He admitted it was partly his fault “for not having realised the consequences of what was going to happen”.

But “there are some people in a position where it wasn’t so straightforward to convert your licence,” he notes.

This was true for another reader, who wished to remain anonymous. She tells us that she tried to begin the conversion of her UK driving licence three times in Imperia, where she lives, but was told to “wait and see what is decided”.

“No one has taken a note of my requests and attempts so I cannot prove my attempts to get this sorted or listed,” she says.

READ ALSO: How to import your car or motorbike to Italy

In her case, it would therefore be difficult to prove that she began the conversion process before January 1st, 2021.

She also faced setbacks when trying to convert her licence in time after applying for residency before Brexit.

On being told that she needed her final ID card (carta d’identità) proving her residence, she returned to her town hall but couldn’t get the card for another seven months due to no appointments being available.

“Then I couldn’t get the licence exchanged as the person dealing with this was not at work on the day I went. I had to fly back to UK then Covid restrictions kicked in, hampering travel and by then UK was out of Europe and the Italian/UK driver’s licence issues remained unsolved,” she added.

The question on a UK-Italy driving licence agreement rolls on. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP

So is there any hope that an agreement will be reached and those driving on a UK licence won’t need to sit an Italian driving test?

At this point there are no indications as to whether a decision will be reached either way. The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test, while also stating that they’re working on reaching a deal.

The latest update to the driving guidance on the British government’s ‘Living in Italy’ webpage in January states:

“If you were resident in Italy before 1 January 2022 you can use your valid UK licence until 31 December 2022,” however, “you must exchange your licence for an Italian one by 31 December 2022. You will need to take a driving test (in Italian).”

The guidance then states: “The British and Italian governments continue to negotiate long-term arrangements for exchanging driving licences without needing to take a test.”

So far, so much conflicting advice, as many readers point out.

Of those who have decided to take the plunge and sit the Italian driving test, some say it’s “not as difficult as it sounds” while others report having trouble with the highly technical questions in the theory test, not to mention the fact that the test has to be taken in Italian.

If you speak French or German better than Italian, the test may be available in those languages – but not in English.

READ ALSO: Getting your Italian driving licence: the language you need to pass your test

“My question is why can’t you take your driving test in English? Adding it as an option for taking the test would help,” says Njideka Nwachukwu, who moved to Italy in 2019. She failed the theory test and has to try again, at a further cost.

Even if you find taking the test a breeze, the process is known to take around six months – if you pass everything first time – and to set you back hundreds of euros.

At the time of writing, neither Italian nor British government officials have given any indication as to if or when a deal may be reached, or an explanation of why the two countries have not yet been able to reach an agreement.

Nor has any explanation been given as to why this important aspect of life in Italy was never protected under the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place.

When contacted by The Local recently for an update on the situation, the British Embassy in Rome stated: “rest assured the Embassy continues to prioritise the issue of UK driving licence validity in Italy and we continue to engage with the Italian government on this issue.”

The Local will continue to ask for updates regarding the use of British driving licences in Italy.

Thank you to everyone who contacted The Local to tell us how they are affected by this issue, including those we couldn’t feature in this article.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.

See The Local’s latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.

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