What the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement means for Brits in Europe

Here's a recap of what that draft deal - as agreed in March - means for British citizens living in Europe and those who aim to move here in the near future and why it angered campaigners.

What the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement means for Brits in Europe
Photo: Deposit photos

We've now entered the crunch time for Britain's departure from the EU.

On Wednesday British PM Theresa May presented the text of the deal she has agreed with Brussels to her divided cabinet. If they give it the green light then it must still be ratified by individual EU countries and most importantly it must also win the backing of the British parliament. If it doesn't then anything could happen, including a second referendum or more worryingly a no-deal exit.

For up to date news and reaction to Theresa May's draft deal you can visit our LIVE blog

In other words, there's a long way to go in a short space of time, with Britain set to officially leave the EU at midnight on March 29th.

“There's no doubt that for citizens' rights a deal is better than no deal, so there are 5 million people today with their hearts in their mouths,” Kalba Meadows from Remain in France Together and British in Europe told The Local.

“But even if the deal is accepted by the cabinet today there's a long way to go.”

The citizens' rights part of Britain's 500-page withdrawal agreement from the EU was drawn up back in March – although not set in stone – when London and Brussels came to “complete agreement” on the thorny subject. 

Wednesday's draft is not believed to contain any new elements that affect citizens rights with a spokesman for the EU Commission telling The Local: “The citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement was agreed in full back in March.”

That means Brits in the EU will lose the right to onward freedom of movement – the right move to another EU country – at the end of the transition period.

Campaigners insisted on Wednesday that although it was drawn up in March the citizens rights part of the agreement has not been “signed off” and it hasn't been ring-fenced, meaning all the agreed rights will be lost if Theresa May's deal is rejected and Britain leaves the EU without an agreement.

Brian Robinson from Brexpats Hear Our Voice told The Local on Wednesday: “We have been repeatedly saying that the claims by the British government that 'they have delivered on citizens' rights', is entirely false.” 

“The draft agreement only touches upon some treaty rights and ignores the rest. The draft has not been ring-fenced, as we have constantly asked for it to be, and the government still talks about 'no deal being better than a bad deal'. In the event of no deal, our rights will be lost.”

Here's a recap on what was agreed back then and importantly what was left out, with the help of British in Europe, the campaign group representing Brits across the EU.

They have described the withdrawal agreement as having “more holes than a piece of Emmental cheese.”


LIVE – Brits in Europe hold their breath as Theresa May presents deal to cabinet

  • If you are legally resident in an EU country then you can stay, albeit you will probably have to apply to authorities in order to secure this status (see below for more).
  • Brits will only lose those rights if they spend five continuous years away from the EU country the are living in.
  • The current EU laws on the right of residence will apply meaning Brits in the EU are not obliged to meet any conditions for the first three months of their stay, but after that they must be working or self-employed, self-sufficient or a student. Alternatively they can be a family member of someone who meets these conditions.
  • After 5 years of meeting these conditions then you will earn the right to stay permanently. Anyone with less than five years residence under their belts by the end of the transition period will be allowed to stay on under the same conditions until they can claim permanent residency. 
  • Britons in the EU will enjoy the continued right to reciprocal healthcare. So those pensioners who have cover under the S1 scheme or will be eligible for one when they retire will continue to have their healthcare funded by the UK. For British workers in EU countries who pay into the national health scheme then, the rules will remain as they are now. 
  • EHIC health cards will also continue to cover travel across the EU.
  • Pensions will be uprated – meaning your UK state pension will be increased annually as it has been for those living in the UK or in the EU up to now.
  • Disability benefits will also be “exported” as they are now.
  • Frontier workers who live in one country and work in another will have the right to continue to work in each country.
  • Close family members including spouses, civil partners and dependent children will be able to join you living in an EU country if you are legally resident. British in Europe points out that: “This will apply for the whole of your lifetime. If you have children after the effective date they also are protected under the withdrawal agreement if you and the other parent are also protected or a national of the country you live in.”

But where's our Freedom of Movement gone?

Continuing freedom of movement – which includes the ability to move, live and work in another EU country other than the country of residence – has not been included in the latest withdrawal agreement agreed by London and Brussels.

This is much to the anger of citizens' groups in the EU.

Jane Golding, Co-Chair of British in Europe said:  “We were told in March that citizens’ rights were a done deal and that discussions on this would not be re-opened. However it is clear from the text that some changes have in fact been made, meaning that it is unacceptable and upsetting that free movement – a lifeline for many of us – has been excluded when both sides knew it was critical for us.

In the small print of the March agreement it said the issue of freedom of movement was “outside the scope” of the initial negotiations, meaning the rights of Brits living in France to be able to move and work freely in other EU countries may depend on how trade negotiations go.

It may still be included in any future UK-EU agreement with Britain signalling that they would seek to give Britons in the EU the right to onward movement as part of negotiations over the “future relationship”.

Other rights that were not included in the March agreement are on matters such as the right to provide cross-border services as self employed people, recognition of some professional qualifications and the right to be joined by a future spouse or partner who you were not in a relationship with before the end of the transition period.

How happy should Brits in Europe be?

British in Europe say this: “It’s reasonable to say that for those who are happily settled in their country of residence, work solely in that country, have retired there or are pre-retired, have no wish or need to move to or work or study in another EU country, fulfill all the requirements for exercising treaty rights (see here) and don’t rely on professional qualifications, then your rights should be covered.”

One of the major downsides is that EU countries may adopt a “constitutive system” meaning Brits would have to apply for the new status, meaning they would have to prove they had built up five years of legal residence (see bullet point two above) and perhaps undergo other checks such as criminality checks.

This is likely to be case given that the UK are to implement this under their “settled status” scheme and EU countries are likely to reciprocate.

This could cause problems for those who may not be able to prove they are or have been (for 5 years) self-sufficient. “The draft deal says :the deadline for submitting the application shall not be less than 6 months from the end of the transition period.”

For example in France there have been reports of Britons being turned down for residency permits and being asked to leave the country.

Many others are too worried to apply for the residency permits fearing they won't be able to prove they are self-sufficient and not a burden on the country's social security system, which they are being advised to do by the country's Interior Ministry, for fear they will be turned down and asked to leave.

The problem is after Brexit a new kind residency permit are likely to become obligatory.

“Some people would struggle to find the proof that they meet the statutory requirements of ‘legal residence’ and as we all know, bureaucracies can make mistakes. This is one of our major objections,” say British in Europe.

For more information on the citizens rights part of the withdrawal agreement you can visit the British in Europe website.

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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.