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BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

Member comments

  1. Just FYI, the hyperlink in “the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders” won’t show up for me as a subscriber to TheLocal.fr. It says it requires a separate subscription to the Norway version of The Local. It would be lovely if you could fix that.

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BREXIT

Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

With ongoing uncertainty over whether UK driving licences will continue to be recognised in Italy beyond the end of this year, British residents are asking where they stand.

Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

Many of The Local’s British readers have been in touch recently to ask whether any progress has been made in negotiations between the UK and Italy on a reciprocal agreement on the use of driving licences.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the background of this Brexit consequence.

READ ALSO: Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

When Britain left the EU there was no reciprocal agreement in place, but UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences. This period was later extended to the current deadline of December 31st, 2022.

The situation beyond that date however remains unclear, and concern is growing among the sizeable number of British nationals living in Italy who say no longer being allowed to drive would be a serious problem.

There was the option of exchanging licences before the end of 2021, but many didn’t make the deadline. As has been proven before, this was often not due to slackness but rather all manner of circumstances, from having moved to Italy after or shortly before the cut-off date to bureaucratic delays.

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

So is an agreement any closer? Or do those driving in Italy on a UK licence really need to go to the considerable trouble and expense of sitting an Italian driving test (in Italian)?

With five months left to go, there’s still no indication as to whether a decision will be made either way.

The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test – while also stressing that they’re working hard on reaching a deal, which would make taking the test unnecessary.

This message has not changed.

On Wednesday, July 27th, British Ambassador to Italy Ed Llewellyn tweeted after a meeting with Italian Infrastructure and Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini: “The British and Italian governments continue to work towards an agreement on exchange of driving licences.”

But the ambassador earlier this month advised UK nationals “not to wait” and to “take action now by applying for an Italian licence”.

In an official newsletter published in mid-July, Llewellyn acknowledged the concerns of British residents and confirmed that negotiations are still going on.

“I know that many of you are understandably concerned about whether your UK driving licence will continue to be recognised in Italy, especially when the extension granted by Italy until 31 December 2022 for such recognition expires.

“Let me set out where things stand. The British Government is working to reach an agreement with Italy on the right to exchange a licence without the need for a test. 

READ ALSO:  Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

“The discussions with our Italian colleagues are continuing and our objective is to try to reach an agreement in good time before the end of the year.

“We hope it will be possible to reach an agreement – that is our objective and we are working hard to try to deliver it. 

Nevertheless, he said, “our advice is not to wait to exchange your licence.”

“If you need to drive in Italy, you can take action now by applying for an Italian licence. This will, however, involve taking a practical and theory test.” 

He acknowledged that “the process is not a straightforward one and that there are delays in some areas to book an appointment for a test”.

READ ALSO: ‘Anyone can do it’: Why passing your Italian driving test isn’t as difficult as it sounds

“We will continue to work towards an agreement,” he wrote. “That is our objective and it is an objective we share with our Italian colleagues.“

The British Embassy in Rome had not responded to The Local’s requests for further comment on Friday.

The Local will continue to publish any news on the recognition of British driving licences in Italy. See the latest updates in our Brexit-related news section here.

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

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