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BREXIT

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead

As citizens' rights coalition group British in Europe winds down, its co-chair Jane Golding tells The Local of the problems that still lie ahead for UK nationals and whether any good at all came out of Brexit for Brits living in the EU.

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead
Members of British in Europe and the3million including co-chair Jane Golding (centre) meet with the EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: British in Europe.

In the winter of 2017, as most Britons living in Europe were still reeling from the shock result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, a small number of individuals and groups came together united by a single aim.

Those ordinary people, who formed the coalition of citizens’ rights groups that became British in Europe, had one objective in mind; to ensure the impact and trauma of the UK’s divorce from the EU did not ruin the lives of an estimated 1.2 million Brits living across the EU.

They were based in all corners of the EU from Berlin to Brussels, central Italy, rural France and the Spanish coast and were “driven by a rage” to protect the rights given to them as EU citizens. 

After the referendum – which many Britons in the EU were barred from voting in – those rights to live, work and build a family in an EU country were under real threat. 

But after five years of relentless campaigning, most of those rights have been protected and whilst things are not quite as straightforward as before most of the hundreds of thousands of British citizens living in the EU have been able to continue their lives pretty much as before.

READ ALSO: Battling Brexit – How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens rights

(Jane Golding speaking at a joint British in Europe/the3million rally in London”. Photo: British in Europe.)
 
‘We’d like to think we made a difference’

That’s thanks in no small way to the endless hours of work, research, lobbying and online meetings carried out by the volunteers at British in Europe and the network of British citizens’ rights groups across Europe they represented.

“We like to think that what we’ve done has made a real difference to the lives of all of these people who had their EU citizenship rights removed,” Golding tells The Local as she reflects on the group’s achievements but also what lies ahead.

“We didn’t take this wholesale removal of our rights sitting down and we did fight to make our voices heard, to get the message out there that what was being done as a result of Brexit was not OK.

“In the end the majority of the rights of UK citizens living in the EU host countries were safeguarded in their host country.”

The right to remain, work and continue to access healthcare or benefits was ensured, whilst British in Europe successfully persuaded the UK government to extend the grace period for when Britons can move back with their EU family as well as lobbying the government to release €3 million in funding to help Britons secure their post Brexit status in Europe.

There were rights that were lost however, such as the right for Britons to be able to continue to move around the EU rather than being landlocked in the country they were in at the time of Brexit or EU-wide recognition of professional qualifications.

The problems that lie ahead for Britons

But what will worry Britons in Europe is that Golding, who described their work as “painstaking legal-based advocacy”, and the rest of the British in Europe team are winding up at the end of February.

There was a will to continue but a lack of funding – an estimated €200,000 a year would have been needed – meant the volunteers were simply unable to commit long term.

Luckily many online support groups for UK citizens will still active, including groups like British in Germany and Remain in France Together, but the concern now for Britons is who will stick up for their rights at the highest level in UK and Europe? Who will give evidence to select committees in Westminster? Who will push their case at the European parliament? Who will work closely with the European Commission and governments around EU nations to ensure that Brexit does not ruin lives in the future? 

READ ALSO: How many Britons in EU acquired post-Brexit residency and how many were rejected?

“It’s a worry,” says Golding. “Our concern is that unlike for EU citizens in the UK there is no independent monitoring authority for citizens’ rights. There are some very good people working on citizens’ rights issues in the European Commission but there are not huge resources for these tasks and there’ll no longer be a coordinating EU-wide group like ours to point to issues and systemic problems.”

One of Golding’s last tasks as co-chair of British in Europe was to give evidence to the joint EU/UK Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights, which was set up to keep a check on whether the citizens’ rights aspect of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was being properly enforced.

‘Those without cards face serious problems’

Last month the Committee released figures that revealed that some some 497,100 Britons in the EU out of an estimated 1.093 million have acquired a post-Brexit residence status – although this doesn’t tell the full story because Britons living in many EU countries have not been obliged to apply for a post Brexit residence permit.

EU countries could choose whether to grant post-Brexit residence status under a constitutive system (applicants had to apply directly to government agencies to be awarded residence status), or a declaratory system (applicants’ rights were not dependent on a government decision).

Golding says it’s clearly a worry that tens of thousands of British citizens had not acquired cards even if it wasn’t obligatory to do so.

“Just how many people out there who still haven’t been reached? In declaratory countries there are still large numbers of people who haven’t registered for their status. That’s a real concern,” she says.

“Then there’s the issue of the delays in receiving cards and the problems that causes, such as accessing services and travel issues. That will be a problem until all the cards are issued and we are nowhere near that in some countries yet.”

“The problem is for most institutions you need to have a card to engage with them on a daily basis and if you haven’t yet got a card then you are a bit stuck – it’s a serious problem.

“When you are accessing employment, health services, social security, we’ve had cases in Germany where people are applying for mortgages, you don’t have to have the card but in some cases it makes your life really difficult if you don’t.”

Other issues include why some residents have been given temporary residence – for five years – when they should have been given permanent residence.

How can you prove you are absent?

A temporary residency status means they are constrained by tighter rules over how long they can leave the country without running the risk of losing residency. 

Those with permanent residency can leave for up to five years without losing residency and those with temporary residence can leave for 6 months (12 months in certain exceptional cases) but the rules are not clear for example over how to prove when the people officially left a country.

Golding says people thinking of leaving their host country need to get advice. She warns that cases will emerge over the next few years – until those with temporary residence have gained permanent residency – to come of people losing residency and those cases may well end up in European courts.

In other words it appears obvious British citizens will still need the kind of support British in Europe has offered, but they won’t be able to call upon it.

The hope is that thanks to British in Europe and the many other citizens’ rights groups that continue to exist in social media groups around Europe, British citizens are better armed and informed to tackle what problems lie ahead.

‘You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU’

And perhaps a more mobilised and united community of British citizens is the only good thing to have emerged out of Brexit for those most affected by it.

“I think what’s come out of this is a much more cohesive force, we’ve created a political force. UK citizens in the EU have got a voice in the political process we didn’t have before. You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU which you couldn’t before,” she said.

And after five years of blood sweat and tears has she herself got over Brexit?

“It’s been an extremely positive experience standing together to defend our rights in the face of something that was, at the time, really very depressing.

“At the time of the referendum we all went through a period of mourning and it’s also caused so many practical problems.”

Like many, Golding took German citizenship to ensure she maintained freedom of movement which she needed for work and requalified as a German lawyer.

“Once you have done these things it at least makes you feel you have secured your livelihood going forward and the position where you live and in that way you can reach some kind of peace,” she said.

Member comments

  1. The EU only understands what they call leverage . Consequently, so long as they want to see the rights of 6 million EU citizens protected in the UK, they’ll be mindful of Brit rights in Europe.

  2. I think a very big thank you is called for to all those who worked so hard and so effectively. Just so that they know.
    Victor peel

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For members

VISAS

How to apply for an Italian elective residency visa from the UK

If you're a non-EU UK resident or a British citizen who wants to move to Italy post-Brexit, the elective residency visa is one of the options available to you. Here's how to apply from the UK.

How to apply for an Italian elective residency visa from the UK

Since Brexit was finalised at the start of 2021, British nationals who want to relocate to Italy have been in the same boat as all other extra-EU citizens, requiring a visa to make the move.

For those who receive a passive income and don’t need to work, the elective residency/residence visa (ERV) is a popular choice – though the application process can be confusing.

EXPLAINED: How to apply for an elective residency visa to move to Italy

A recent survey conducted by the Local on the experiences of British citizens moving to Italy post-Brexit found that a number of respondents – mostly retirees – had applied or attempted to apply for this visa.

However many described the process as being far more onerous, complex and stressful than they had anticipated.

One couple who were on their second attempt strongly advised retaining a lawyer, as they found that the information provided by the Italian authorities was not clear or detailed enough to allow for a successful application.

READ ALSO: ‘Seek legal advice’: Your advice on applying for Italian visas post-Brexit

The Local spoke to three experts about how to maximise your chances of success when applying for the ERV.

Most of the advice given was relevant to anyone intending to apply for the ERV, but some related specifically to the experience of people applying from the UK; we’ve compiled that information here.

Because where you’re applying from – rather than your nationality – is the main thing that matters for this application process, this guidance applies equally to non-British citizens who are legally resident in the UK.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re applying for the ERV as a British resident.

Going through an agency

If you want to apply for an ERV from the UK, you’ll likely need to go through VFS Global, an outsourcing agency that handles visa applications for the UK’s Italian consulates.

This is different to how the application process works for people in countries like the US, Canada, or Australia, who usually need to apply directly to the Italian consulate closest to where they are legally resident.

Most UK applicants, by contrast, deal exclusively with VFS Global, whose representatives conduct the appointment, review the documentation and deliver the application to the consulate on their behalf.

Some of the Local’s readers have said they felt penalised by the requirement to go through a third party middleman, as it blocks them from having direct contact with anyone with at the consulate.

But Nick Metta from Studio Legale Metta says going through an agency can actually provide an advantage, as their representatives tend to be well-versed in all the ERV requirements. “Basically they can do a pre-check, and usually that will avoid you the denial letter,” he says.

Agencies can assist you in making sure all your paperwork is in order.

Agencies can assist you in making sure all your paperwork is in order. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the absence of an agency, he says, the consular staff member tasked with conducting ERV meetings is often “a front office handler who in most cases is not very well-versed in Italian regulations or requirements,” – some of whom have provided his clients with incorrect information in the past.

Elze Obrikyte from Giambrone & Partners, who regularly assists UK clients with ERV applications, says that the involvement of an agency also means UK applicants have more flexibility about where – and therefore when – they can book an appointment.

For example, while US applicants have to wait for a slot at their nearest consulate to open up, someone in London has the option to book an appointment at VFS’s application centre in, e.g., Edinburgh, potentially fast-tracking the process for those who are keen to get started.

READ ALSO: EU Blue Card: Who can get one in Italy and how do you apply?

What’s required

VFS Global’s checklist says applicants for the ERV in the UK should have:

    • A completed application form, which can be obtained from your consulate.
    • Two recent passport photos.
    • A passport that is valid until at least 90 days after the requested ERV would expire, plus two copies of the front page and of all Schengen visas issued in the past three years.
    • For non-British citizens, a UK residence permit.
    • A cover letter explaining why you intend to move to Italy.
    • Detailed documentation showing “substantial and stable private income”, including official letters from the banks or financial institutions listed (this must be passive income, as ERV recipients are not allowed to work once they arrive in Italy). 
    • Your last two years of income tax returns.
    • A registered ownership deed or rental lease agreement for property in Italy.
    • A reservation for a one-way ticket to Italy.
    • A marriage certificate for those applying as a married couple, and/or a birth certificate showing both parents’ names for dependent minors.

Applying for an ERV to move from the UK to Italy requires a substantial amount of paperwork.

Applying for an ERV to move from the UK to Italy requires a substantial amount of paperwork. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Advice for UK applicants

Giuditta Petreni, who assists clients with ERV applications at Mazzeschi Legal Counsels, says she believes the ERV process has been getting tougher for UK-based applicants in recent years.

Obrikyte says she thinks consulates have become more strict in general over the past decade, but has observed that British applicants tend to struggle more with the application process than their North American counterparts.

“I see that most of them tend to be not well prepared for this type of application, while American and Canadian citizens, they’ve been living in this situation for years, so they prepare better,” she says.

READ ALSO: From visas to language: What Americans can expect when retiring in Italy

British applicants, by contrast, “tend to submit the application without actually putting a lot of effort in and then they are surprised when the application is rejected.”

Obrikyte says one key area where applicants often fall down is the cover letter explaining why they want to move to Italy.

In her experience, ‘pre-rejections’ – provisional refusals that give applicants the opportunity to fix an unsatisfactory aspect of their application before the final decision is made – are often issued on the basis of this letter alone.

She says that when asked to write a motivation letter, her clients will often write about loving the food or the weather. “This is not enough,” says Obrikyte.

READ ALSO: Visas and residency permits: How to move to Italy (and stay here)

“You must really convince them that, for example, you have purchased a property, you have already been spending a lot of time in Italy, and you are integrated in that neighbourhood.”

“Italian language is not a requirement for this visa, but of course if you mention that you are studying Italian or you know Italian, which helps you to integrate better, this is also an advantage for your application.”

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