OPINION: The UK blew its precious chance to guarantee our post-Brexit rights

Theresa May’s letter to UK nationals living in Europe on the progress of Brexit negotiations is likely to prompt us to save up Brussels sprouts for a New Year’s pelting ceremony at Downing Street, writes Laura Shields from citizens' group British in Europe.

OPINION: The UK blew its precious chance to guarantee our post-Brexit rights
Photo: AFP
How should we, the 1.2 million British people living in continental Europe, reply to the shiny Christmas letter we received from Theresa May hoping to reassure us that we’ll be able to carry on life as normal after Brexit?
In the spirit of yuletide joy, I suppose we should be grateful that we have a letter at all…even if it comes a week after the one she sent to the 3.3 million Europeans living in London and is clearly a cut and pasted version of that.
But to avoid being churlish, let’s look at what comfort we can draw from her claim to have successfully brokered a reciprocal deal to secure our rights against of those of the 3 million Europeans living in the UK.
If you are a pensioner or someone who doesn’t need to travel or move around for work then perhaps you’ll feel like raising a glass of mulled wine to toast Mrs May’s success at securing our residence, healthcare and social security rights.

Abused, shunned but unfazed: What it's like being a Brexit-supporting Brit in FrancePhoto: AFP

Unfortunately, if you look at the fine print of December 8th's UK-EU joint technical report two issues are striking.
Firstly, our residence rights haven’t actually been guaranteed. Instead of retaining our automatic right to reside we, like our European friends in the UK, will instead end up with settled status which, depending on which EU 27 country you live in, many mean you need to go through a far from infallible application process replete with criminal background checks.
What a fun thing for an 85-year-old to be considering at this point in life.
Secondly, for the rest of us who need to travel or move for work (and remember four in five Brits in Europe are working age or younger) then May’s letter is likely to prompt us to save up all our unwanted soggy Brussels sprouts and plan an unseasonal trip to Downing Street for an impromptu but festive New Year’s pelting ceremony.
Why? Partly because some of our most important worries been deemed ‘out of scope’ for the first phase of the talks and have been bumped into Phase Two.
These include free movement, cross border service provision (e.g. if you have a catering company and live in France but work in other EU countries) and whether professional qualifications will still be recognised and economic rights apply across the EU 27.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki Photo: AFP
But mostly it’s about May’s spin that the EU didn’t want to discuss these issues in Phase 1 of the negotiations, when the European Commission negotiating directives from June clearly indicate otherwise.
There was a precious window in which to guarantee all our rights but the UK blew it because they were more interested in cutting those of EU nationals in the UK.
So, where does this leave us?
At British in Europe, we’re going to keep working with our sister group the 3 Million to ensure that citizens’ rights – or how Brexit will affect the (mostly disenfranchised) 4.6 million people directly affected by it – doesn’t get forgotten amid the fog of arguments about agriculture, financial services and airline slots.
Solidarity, which is clearly out of fashion at the moment, is unbelievably important right now.


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.