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BREXIT

Could this EU Green Card save freedom of movement for Britons in Europe?

Imagine a card that would let Brits in Europe keep freedom of movement and all the rights of EU citizenship after Brexit. It might sound like fantasy but one organisation is leading the way to make it happen. We spoke to the campaign's founder.

Could this EU Green Card save freedom of movement for Britons in Europe?
Alex Stubb, former PM of Finland (centre), Madeleina Kay, EU SuperGirl and Roger Casale (left) in the European Parliament in July 2018 for the launch of the prototype Green Card. Photo: New Europeans.

A campaign by New Europeans is lobbying the EU to intervene in Brexit and issue a card that would offer “privileged status” for UK nationals currently living in the EU, as well as for Europeans settled in the UK and essentially allow them to keep their treasured freedom of movement.

The campaign is being led by Roger Casale, a former Labour MP who now lives near Florence in Italy and who heads the New Europeans.

“The Green Card would ring-fence the rights that you had as an EU citizen,” Casale told The Local. “It would create equivalent status.”

With nearly 55,000 signatures and counting, a petition on change.org started by Casale is slowly gathering steam.

An EU-issued “Green Card” could be a vital addition for the 3.6 million or so EU nationals living in the UK, as well as the 1.2 million or more Brits in Europe. 

Under his plan the EU Commission would issue a resolution to offer the 'five million', UK nationals living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK, the right to a special recognition for having acquired residency before Brexit.

This would effectively guarantee a sort of privileged status, far greater than the rights agreed under the current Withdrawal Agreement, for five million UK and EU citizens whose rights are set to be stripped back by Brexit. 

A Green Card would enable British citizens who have already exercised their treaty rights before the Brexit to retain free movement, a right that will be lost if Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.

It would help restore a sense of “status” and “privilege” that EU citizenship entailed, Casale said.

It would also help EU citizens in the UK prove that they have settled status swiftly and efficiently to obtain the services, employment and housing benefits that settled status affords.

As Casale notes, the Home Office has said it will not offer EU citizens any additional document to prove settled status – everything will be digital. This will make it difficult for EU citizens to prove they have the additional rights guaranteed by the settled status package at any given time. 

Casale's idea has already been applauded by the Financial Times and New Europeans is the 2019 recipient of the Schwarzkopf Award. Casale's organisation was also the recipient of the CiDAN/ESDA Europe award in late 2018,  “in recognition of New Europeans' leading role in the campaign to safeguard the rights of EU27 citizens in the UK and Britons in Europe following the Brexit referendum.”

Casale himself has also received a Medal of the President of the French Republic. But it is the response from key EU institutions that will matter most. 

“It's at a critical stage,” said Casale, a former Labour MP for the London constituency of Wimbledon.

“The Green Card works regardless of if there's a deal or no deal,” adds Casale, a British citizen, who has settled near Florence in Italy. “The rights afforded it by such a scheme would be for life.”

Casale is due to give evidence at the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the EU parliament (AFCO) in early 2019.

How does he hope a Green Card could come about and what kind of time frame can we expect?

If AFCO makes a proposal, the EU parliament would then vote on it. Should the European Parliament approve the idea, the EU Commission would then have to pass a resolution for the EU Council to vote on. The minimum timeline would be 12-18 months in a best case scenario, Casale admits. 

New Europeans hopes the platforms it has created for citizens rights in the EU, such as Friendship Group on Citizens' Rights, the 20-MEP strong cross-party group at European Parliament, will help raise the campaign's profile.

“It was always my view that there would be a problem to rely on the Withdrawal Agreement. The risk of not getting what you want was always too great” says Casale, explaining how New Europeans and citizens' grassroots campaign group British in Europe ultimately pursued different strategies and objectives in pursuit of similar goals. 

“Somebody needed to have a Plan B,” says Casale, whose organisation's focus is on lobbying the EU institutions to help resolve the impasse on citizenship rights, rather than lobbying Brexit negotiators directly, an approach preferred by British in Europe and the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK.

“We didn't feel that it was right to go into the negotiations,” adds Casale. 

British in Europe and New Europeans continued to work together and in parallel, from one group attending the other's mass lobby on parliament in February 2017, to giving evidence to the same European Parliament committees. 

One of the appeals behind the Green Card campaign is that it is is cross-party and endorsed by voters on both sides of the Brexit divide, argues Casale. “A lot of Leave voters think EU citizens' rights should have been sorted two years ago,” he says. 

The EU has the experience to implement such a system – a Blue Card, a “work permit issued to highly-qualified non-EU citizens” is already in place.

“They already have the set up and the machinery. They only need to change the ink from blue to green,” quips Casale.  

The former MP with extensive networks among MEPs is confident there is broad support for the motion in the European Parliament. Whether that can translate into getting Brits in he EU free movement will depend on how the EU chooses to react.

That could depend on whether the UK continues to remain on course for a potential exit without a deal from the EU. Such a scenario would see UK nationals living in Europe at the mercy of legislation of individual Member States (France and Germany have already passed contingency laws), as there would be no Withdrawal Agreement or pan-European motion to protect them. 

A Green Card would be one option to fill that void. 

READ MORE: Quiz: How well do you know Brexit?

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BRITS IN EUROPE

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.

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