OPINION: Brexit and Brits in the EU – bargaining chip or afterthought?

What will happen to reciprocal arrangements between EU countries and the UK when Brits abroad are reduced to an afterthought? Laura Shields of the Liberal Democrats examines the issues faced by anxious Britons.

OPINION: Brexit and Brits in the EU - bargaining chip or afterthought?
UK flags hang across a street near the Houses of Parliament in central London after Britons voted to leave the EU. Photo: AFP

Last week the British government successfully quashed amendments to its EU withdrawal legislation that would have required it to take proactive action on the rights of British citizens living in the EU and EU nationals in the UK.

The government doesn’t want any constraints on its Brexit negotiations. Its logic is that if it acts unilaterally to guarantee the rights of 3.3 million EU nationals living in the UK then it won’t have any negotiating capital with the EU 27 over the status of us 1.3 million Brits living outside the UK.  Reciprocity is the buzzword and let’s not forget it.

As a British migrant living in Belgium I can understand the tactic but it’s more than a little dispiriting to be thought of as a bargaining chip. That said, I’m not even convinced the government does see us that way. Hell – bargaining chip?  Afterthought is more likely.

At the moment, most of the political discussion around the twinned fates of Brits in the EU and their EU counterparts is about the ‘right to reside’. This simplistic view does not fully capture the complexity of the practical challenges that Brits living in the EU will face once the UK leaves the EU and we lose our EU citizenship. 

I am not alone in this thought. A survey we (Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats) recently did of 5,000 Brits living in the EU reflects the complexity and anxiety many here feel. It also chimes with a recent Alternative White Paper from Brits in Europe which made detailed policy recommendations to the UK government on how it could pre-emptively protect the rights of its nationals in the EU.

Contrary to the cliché, most British ‘expats’ aren’t wealthy pensioners who’ve retired to the Riviera to live it up in the sun. We heard from a 25-year-old studying in Paris who is worried what the loss of EU citizenship will mean for his job prospects in Europe.

Likewise, a woman living in Spain who is a full time carer for her son with Aspergers worries that he may lose his entitlement to PIP (Personal Independence Payments) and carers. Both are currently guaranteed by reciprocal arrangements between Spain and the UK as part of our EU membership. 

And a woman in her thirties working in Ireland is anxious about what will happen to the working rights of her non-EU husband after Brexit. At the moment, Ireland grants non-EU spouses of EU citizens the automatic right to work. But no EU citizenship, means no automatic right to work for the spouse. 

The EU Withdrawal bill has now passed to the Lords where Opposition Peers plan to re-introduce the amendments on EU and UK migrants when it has its second hearing next week. So we can expect the legislative ping pong to continue.

In the meantime, we bargaining chips can only wait and hope for a good hand.

Laura Shields is Chair of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats

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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.