‘This brings us hope’: What the Brexit court ruling means for Brits in Spain

What does this week's ruling in a Dutch court mean for the rights of Britons living in Spain and across the EU? It at least offers hope and potentially a lot more, campaigners tell The Local.

'This brings us hope': What the Brexit court ruling means for Brits in Spain
Photo: AFP

On Wednesday the British group Brexpats – Hear our Voice won a landmark ruling in a court in Amsterdam that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of all Britons living across the EU.

Five British nationals who had settled in the Netherlands asked the court in Amsterdam to refer their case to the EU Court of Justice after arguing that their rights as EU citizens could not be taken away by the Brexit referendum result.

The court agreed with their request and now a panel of judges at the CJEU (formerly ECJ)  will be asked to consider whether British nationals living in the EU automatically lose their EU citizenship rights, such as freedom of movement, as a direct result of Brexit.

If the answer is no then judges will have to rule whether any limitations or conditions can be put on those rights. The exact questions that will be put to the judges will be drawn up in the next two weeks.

But while nothing has been won yet, those groups who represent the 1.2 million Brits living across the EU, including the more than 200,000 who are permanently resident in Spain, stressed the significance of Wednesday's ruling.

A spokesman for Bremain in Spain said they were delighted with the decision which had “brought relief and hope to our members”.

Campaigner Sue Wilson speaking at a rally in Manchester last October. Photo: Bremain in Spain

“The question regarding our EU citizenship rights has kept many Brits awake at night. The purpose of the case was to determine whether EU citizenship stands alone or is tied inextricably to EU membership,” explained Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, a group campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union and to protect the rights of British migrants living in Spain.

“Would we automatically lose our EU citizenship rights if the UK was no longer a member state? Our hope was a referral to the ECJ, so this is a great result,” she told The Local.

The case essentially relates to Article 20 of the Lisbon agreement which stated “citizenship of the union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship”.

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So can a referendum in the UK result in that “additional” EU citizenship being stripped away? In other words just because Britain is leaving the EU can its nationals remain EU citizens and keep all the rights that come with it.

Fiona Godfrey from the pressure group British in Europe told The Local these questions “have never been tested or even looked at before”.

She said the Dutch court's ruling was a landmark decision because “it's likely to be the most important case on EU citizenship rights that the CJEU will hear.

“This gives us hope,” she said.

“It will determine what rights British citizens in the EU have going forward,” said Godfrey. “It could have huge ramifications for the entire withdrawal process.”

If the CJEU rules in favour of the five Britons settled in Amsterdam then the citizen's rights agreement struck between the EU and Theresa May's government in December last year will have to be ripped up.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is welcomed by European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker at European Commission in Brussels on December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP

May had heralded the citizen's rights agreement with the EU announced back in December as part of the first round of Brexit talks for protecting the rights of British expats, but campaign groups say it “contains more holes than a sieve”.

Significantly that agreement does not cover the continued right to freedom of movement around the EU meaning British citizens already in living in an EU country will effectively be landlocked.

Other areas such as the rights of those who work across borders and the recognition of qualifications in different EU countries were also not covered by last December's agreement, that was described as a “double disaster” by British in Europe.

With official Brexit Day set for March 29th 2019 campaigners hope the CJEU will make its ruling before Britain officially leaves the EU.

If no ruling is made by March next year then British in Europe believe December's citizenship agreement will stand for nothing.

“It is clear that the EU and UK cannot finalise and sign off the final text on citizens' rights in the withdrawal agreement  until the CJEU has given its ruling and we would ask them to respect the role of the CJEU in this process,” said the group's chair Jane Golding.

Wilson concludes: “We hope a hearing and decision will be imminent, providing clarification for those living in limbo. What seems clear is that negotiations on citizens' rights cannot be signed off until the ECJ has made a ruling.”

“We have many unresolved issues and the current citizens' rights deal contains more holes than a sieve. Should the ECJ decide that leaving the EU doesn't mean losing our EU citizenship rights, that would be a game-changer. We will follow developments closely in the hope of a good night's sleep!”

All eyes are now on the judges at the Court of Justice.


Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.