Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights?

Groups of volunteers are spending all their time and hard-earned cash on fighting for the rights of Britons across the EU who are directly affected by Brexit. The British government needs to finally make the 1.2 million citizens in the EU a real priority and ease the burden on campaigners, writes Ben McPartland.

Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights?
Photo: AFP

Last week a team of volunteers in different parts of France worked late into the night trying to interpret the newly published French law that spells out what will happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The law is hugely important for the lives and futures of 150,000 Brits in France.

The volunteers, who form the “citizens rights” team at Remain in France Together (RIFT), put aside their normal lives and got on with the job of providing information to the thousands of anxious Brits who were waiting desperately for news of what their futures might hold if Britain crashes out of the EU in a few weeks' time.

These are the same team of volunteers who have spent their own money travelling to Paris to lobby the French government to alert them to the issues Britons are facing across the country.

Of course, it's not just in France where unpaid volunteers have taken it upon themselves to explain the impact of Brexit on health cover, driving licenses and residency rights and basically to stick up for the citizens' rights of anxious Britons, whose lives and health have been damaged by nearly three years of limbo.

The coalition group British in Europe, with linked campaign groups across the EU, has led the way in campaigning and lobbying from Brussels to London and from Berlin to Strasbourg, meeting with UK and EU politicians to fight for the rights of Britons.

In Italy unpaid campaigners from the group British in Italy have actively lobbied the Italian government, which eventually led to Rome becoming the first EU government to guarantee the rights of British citizens in the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Some campaigners say they risk losing their jobs, most say they have already lost their social lives. All have had to dig deep into their savings.

But they know that thousands of worried British citizens now look to them for support, information and advice, more than they do their own government.

But why have the livelihoods of 1.2 million British citizens – that's more than the combined populations of Liverpool and Manchester – across the EU seemingly been left in the hands, albeit very capable ones, of volunteers?

And why have the top ministers in the British government and Prime Minister Theresa May refused to meet those representing the 1.2 million in the last two and a half years?

“Whilst I do believe that those we have met have a genuine desire to help us, they are hampered by the prime minister's desire to limit the rights and freedoms of EU citizens in the UK,” says Bremain in Spain's Sue Wilson.

Wilson says her campaign work has left a deep hole in her pocket.

“It has cost me thousands of pounds (I've stopped counting!) of my own money, which as a pensioner I can ill afford, and I'm working longer hours than I ever did during my career.”

Delia Dumaresq from the group British in Italy summed up the difficulties they faced.

“We are a committee of seven and for some of us, it is a full-time job. We do not have any funding, nor even the means to cover our travel costs which are increasingly onerous as we try to reach more and more British nationals resident here,” she said.

Would other EU countries such as France, which provides MPs for its overseas residents and has passed a law to protect the rights of those who return from the UK after Brexit, really have left so many of its citizens to fend for themselves like this?

The British government hasn't been entirely idle, of course or at least its embassies haven't.

Embassy staff have met with these volunteer groups to hear their concerns about the real issues on the ground and they have passed them on in meetings with officials from interior ministries of EU governments.

Sometimes those messages are heard.

British embassies across the EU have also been holding “outreach” meetings in most countries, which have been attended by thousands of British citizens.

But despite a genuine desire to help on the part of officials, many of those who went to meetings in France report that their questions mostly go unanswered.

That's not necessarily the fault of the embassy staff or the ambassador, of course. Concrete information has been hard to come by over the last two years and often they have come under fire for being the Brexit messenger.

But the simple fact is Theresa May – and her speeches over the last two years give this away – has never made the 1.2 million Britons who took advantage of freedom of movement her priority.

British in Italy's Delia Dumaresq said: “Have we had adequate support from the Embassy or the British government? In a nutshell: no.

“The British government, despite insisting that our citizens' rights are its priority, has done nothing to assist us or any of the other British in EU groups to reach as many British nationals as possible, to inform them of their rights and of what may follow,” she said.

British in Europe campaigners deliver letter to Downing Street. Photo: AFP

“We've always made the running – requesting meetings with the embassy, providing copies of documents we have prepared for the Italian government.

“When it comes to reaching out to the wider audience of British nationals living in Italy, providing them with information on their rights and on events as they unfold in the Brexit pantomime, we certainly have done a lot more [than the embassy].”

But as crunch time approaches it's still not too late for the British government to show some real interest in 1.2 million people and take the burden off these under-pressure volunteers. Or at least share it.

As for what embassies could do to help, British in Italy's Delia Dumaresq suggests “an advertising campaign to inform British nationals here of their existing rights – to advise people to register with their local commune, or exchange their British driving licence before March 29th, to inform them that the Italian government has assured us British nationals will not be 'illegal' after March 30th in the event of a No Deal.”

The embassy could provide “considerable help” by setting up a helpline with information on people's rights, on where to find more information on specific areas and/or with a person that a caller could speak to, British in Italy suggests.

“Such wider 'publicity' that the embassy could give to these issues with their Brexit budgets would assist enormously. People are frankly worried sick about what will happen to them, their families, their jobs, their homes and almost more importantly, their healthcare after March 30th,” said Dumaresq.

These measures could be taken by embassies across the EU if the foreign office responded to their call for help. 

Brits can at least for now rely on campaigners, as Bremain in Spain's head Sue Wilson pledges.

“It's not like I have a choice – I've never felt so strongly about anything in my entire life, and no matter what happens next, I'll be in this until the end.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


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.