Why Brexit is ‘a matter of life or death’ for some Brits in Europe

The stress of the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit and the failure of the UK government to take steps to guarantee the rights of expats has put the health of many of those Britons living in France and Spain on the line.

Why Brexit is 'a matter of life or death' for some Brits in Europe
Photo: AFP

British cancer patient John Shaw, 71 was at the high court this week as judges delivered a blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s hopes of preventing parliament having a say over triggering the divorce from the EU.

“For some of us this is a matter of life or death,” Shaw told reporters massed outside the court.

His group, which “represents the two million British citizens living in other parts of the EU,” has been heavily involved in fighting the government’s attempt to keep parliament out of the picture when it comes to triggering Article 50.

“We are the human side of Brexit,” said Shaw, who lives with his wife Jill in the Lot-et-Garonne department of south west France.

“Everything people in Britain take for granted in their daily lives rests – for us – on being EU citizens. From being able to work, to accessing vital healthcare, and our children’s education.”

Shaw says healthcare is the key issue for the tens of thousands of British pensioners living throughout Europe.

“Healthcare is absolutely key. Many UK pensioners are entitled to join the healthcare systems in the countries in which they live,” he said.

“These rights would be lost. Thousands of UK expats would be unable to continue to receive the healthcare to which they are entitled.”

When it comes to healthcare, British pensioners who paid into UK system have most of their costs in France and Spain covered under the EU’s S1 scheme.

But if governments refused to maintain the scheme after Brexit then pensioners would most likely be forced to shell out for private healthcare cover or hope that governments agree to allow British nationals to join one of the state insurance schemes like PUMA in France.

“I have cancer for the third time and get treatment in France, so it is a matter of life or death,” Shaw said.

“If the S1 scheme was scrapped I would be denied access to the French system and would have to start paying for treatment myself,” Shaw tells The Local.

He also tells the story of his friend Paul, who was refused cancer treatment on the NHS because of the costs involved, but was able to move freely to France and receive the same treatment there.

(A protester at the Supreme Court this week. AFP)

A parliamentary select committee in Westminster heard recently how tens of thousands of Brits abroad may have to return home to get treatment on the NHS if their health costs were not covered.

“Imagine the impact on the NHS when they all go back,” says Shaw. “It’s a disaster all round, whichever way you look at it.”

“I have been talking to many people in Spain who say they actually went out to places like Majorca because of the benefits of the sunshine and the warmth on their health conditions,” said Shaw.

But it’s not just what happens in the future that could have a negative impact on the health of “Brexpats”.

The uncertainty following last June's referendum and the impact of the falling pound against the euro has already affected people’s well-being, in some cases seriously.

“The levels of stress and worry among elderly British citizens living abroad is concerning,” Shaw says.

The France based pro-EU campaign group RIFT (Remain in France Together) that was set up since the referendum presented evidence to the select committee about the health impact of all the uncertainty.

One member of the group said: “My mental and physical health have both suffered since Brexit. I have lost weight, have some sleepless nights, lost my focus on my business and have got a script for anti-anxiety pills. I spent almost three weeks house ridden after 23rd June. I'm slowly coming around.”

Another said: “Brexit has instilled me with anxiety, gives me sleepless nights and much worry.” 

To end their worry Shaw and members of numerous other expat campaign groups that have sprung up since the referendum are demanding that the British government act now to guarantee their rights and the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, before the tortuous Brexit negotiations with the EU begin.

The government must stop using us as “bargaining chips”, Shaw says.

Spanish based Briton Sue Wilson told MPs in Westminster that Britons abroad cannot be made to wait years for their rights to be guaranteed.

“People are suffering now and people have been suffering since [the referendum on] June 23rd because of fear and anxiety about what is going to happen in the future.

“Whatever needs to be decided needs to be decided soon because these people can't wait two and half years for the solution,” said Wilson.

READ ALSO: Brits in France and Spain tell government: 'You must act now'


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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.