OPINION: Those of us who moved to EU countries in good faith don’t deserve to be stripped of our rights

The news regarding freedom of movement last week made for some uncomfortable reading, writes Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain.

OPINION: Those of us who moved to EU countries in good faith don’t deserve to be stripped of our rights
Photo: robsonphoto/Depositphotos

On August 19th, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that freedom of movement would end on day one of a no-deal Brexit. Her aim was to “toughen the Home Office’s stance”, taking a different policy direction to her predecessor, Sajid Javid, who held back a bill that aimed to end freedom of movement.

The proposal, to impose border controls with immediate effect, caused widespread concern for EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU. Citizens’ groups pointed out that nothing is ready, no systems are in place, and this latest political gesture could negatively impact millions of people’s lives.

To add insult to injury, Patel claimed she could shake up immigration policy using secondary legislation, thereby side-lining parliament altogether, to avoid the prospect of MPs trying to torpedo the immigration bill.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L), accompanied by Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel, in London. Photo: AFP

With 2.1 million EU citizens residing in the UK who haven’t yet applied for the settled status scheme, the government is stressing that these citizens should do so urgently. The fact that the application system could not cope with an upsurge in demand is being ignored. In a recent LBC radio interview, Conservative Party chairman, James Cleverly, highlighted the importance of applying before the October 31st deadline. 

When asked what would happen to people with incomplete applications on that date, Cleverly insisted that EU citizens would not be “shipped out”. Radio host, Nick Ferrari, asked: “If they don’t have to go, why do they have to sign up?”

Two days after the Home Secretary’s announcement, an official communication was published by the Home Office. The memo sought to reassure EU citizens that they have until “at least 31 December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, even in the event of a no-deal exit”. It also stated that those waiting to apply would retain their entitlements and benefits. The impression given is that the left hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing.

Conservative MP, Alberto Costa, who has frequently defended citizens’ rights, said that the government could expect “a tsunami of litigation” if it got this wrong. Aside from other concerns, how would the government differentiate between an EU citizen residing in the UK who was returning from a foreign trip, and a new EU citizen arriving in the UK to find work?

On August 22nd, migration experts at Oxford University Migration Observatory reiterated the same point, stating that the Home Office plans are unworkable. Without any system in place, it would be impossible to identify which EU citizens were in the UK legally, or otherwise – a big issue for employers.

When discussing citizens’ rights, EU citizens living in the UK frequently take the headlines. We don’t begrudge them this media focus – their issues deserve to be raised and their treatment by the UK government has frequently been shameful.

Many issues affecting EU citizens in the UK impact Brits in Europe, but we rarely hear about them.

We monitor the news, read the papers, thinking surely, any minute now, Brits in the EU will get a mention, be given a voice. Frequently, we’re disappointed. We feel invisible, discarded, worthless – out of sight, out of mind. Most of us can’t vote, so it would seem, in the UK at least, we don’t count.

It’s tempting to believe that our destiny lies in the hands of the EU or the Spanish government. To some extent, that’s true. With the Royal Decree in March, the Spanish government strived to protect us in the event of no-deal Brexit. Although those protections are time-limited, they mirror the protections within the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the EU and Theresa May.

However, as with any arrangements implemented by EU countries, those protections only apply if the UK reciprocates and treats Spanish, French and other European citizens fairly. The actions of the Home Office are therefore worrying, as European governments will be watching how their own citizens are being treated. In the end, what happens to us is firmly in the hands of the British government.

Of course, all of the above only applies in the case of no-deal Brexit – and I still believe that will never happen. However, we should remember that our freedom of movement was taken off the table with Theresa May’s deal – it’s a price we’d likely pay for any Brexit, not just a no-deal Brexit.

When the UK government talks about immigration and free movement, its only interest is in controlling the numbers of EU citizens moving to Britain. The government should recognise the value of freedom of movement, both to British society and the economy, and remember it’s a two-way street. It is British citizens, regardless of where they live, that stand to lose this treasured right.

Those of us who moved to EU countries in good faith don’t deserve to be stripped of our rights. Neither do future generations. We have been privileged to enjoy the freedom to work, study, live, love, travel and retire in any one of 27 countries. Our children, and their children, deserve the same opportunities.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain



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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.