OPINION: The only way to protect all our rights is to stop Brexit altogether

Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain was among those who staged a rainy protest in Westminster to demand that Europeans' rights be protected.

OPINION: The only way to protect all our rights is to stop Brexit altogether
Sue Wilson at the protest in Westminster on Saturday. Photos: Bremain in Spain

On Saturday October 12th, British citizens from Spain joined me in London to protest Brexit and demand that our rights be protected. Despite the rain, three separate events took place around Westminster, the largest being Rally 4 Our Rights.

Occurring in various locations, the rally focused on the human cost of Brexit, which is frequently overlooked in the Brexit debate. In particular, the rights that all British citizens stand to lose (regardless of their position regarding Brexit), as well as the rights of British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK – collectively known as #the5Million.

Speakers included campaigners for citizens’ rights and human rights, anti-Brexit campaigners from the UK and EU, and UK and EU politicians. Passionate speeches were delivered by Julie Ward MEP and by Tom Brake MP. Both speakers have strongly advocated the protection of our rights from the start, and it has been a privilege to work with them.

Other speakers included “Mr Stop Brexit”, Steven Bray; CEO of Best for Britain, Naomi Smith; and barrister and human rights campaigner, Jessica Simor QC.

It was a pleasure to work again with Elena Remigi, Founder of In Limbo, and Debbie Williams, Chair of Brexpats – Hear our Voice. They both read heart-breaking testimonies from both sides of the Channel, that highlighted how our long-standing situation is painful and unsettling. They also talked about rights that are at risk, especially with a no-deal Brexit.

Many citizens’ rights campaigners are working closely with the UK government and European Parliament to ensure our rights are protected, regardless of what happens with Brexit. A campaign has been fought to ringfence our rights, or at least those protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. However, neither the UK nor EU governments have showed any willingness towards implementing ring-fencing. Secondly, although some important rights would be protected, we would still see our rights generally diminished.

In my speech, I reiterated my strong belief that the only way to protect all our rights is to stop Brexit altogether. Anything less – except, maybe a very soft Brexit, for which there is limited support in Westminster – would see us lose some of our rights. I, for one, am not prepared to relinquish any of my rights!

I also described our anger about how the UK government has treated us. We’ve been ignored, treated as bargaining chips and hung out to dry. The letter that pensioners in Spain received last week from the NHS did nothing to change that opinion.

The first sentence read: “The UK is leaving the European Union on 31st October 2019.” That’s simply not true, as an extension is now the most likely outcome, and starting a letter with a misleading statement is not a good look!

The letter went on to say: “At the moment, we understand you get state-funded healthcare under something known as the S1 scheme” – the implication being that the present situation may not continue. It’s hardly surprising that British pensioners throughout the EU are furious at the prospect of losing the health cover their lifelong contributions had presumably secured for life. As I said in my speech, it’s not the government’s money, it’s ours – we lent it to the government in good faith.

If the earlier letter wasn’t enough, Dominic Raab’s open letter to British citizens in Spain, added further insult on Friday. His interpretation that this was an “exciting time” received swift and strong criticism, and a long supply of alternative adjectives, mostly unprintable!

While consecutive Conservative governments are undoubtedly responsible for our current plight, in my speech, I saved some of my criticism for the opposition parties. Cameron, May and Johnson may have landed us into this mess, but we need parliament to extract us. That means that Labour, SNP, LibDems and the other opposition parties must work together.

The opposition parties have already proved it’s possible for them to cooperate for the greater good. The Benn Act, which aims to force Johnson to request an extension if he fails to secure a deal, is a great example of collaboration. However, the party leaders have been as guilty of electioneering as Johnson, and it’s time for the point-scoring and mud-slinging to stop. It’s time everyone worked together to fight for our future – “a future free of borders, a future free of Boris, a future free of Brexit”.

There’s still time to stop Brexit, and to make a difference personally. Many Brits from Spain will be doing just that next weekend, when they join me in London for the “Let Us Be Heard” People’s Vote march, scheduled on the day of Johnson’s emergency parliamentary session. Expectations are that it will be the biggest protest in British history, with over one million expected to participate.

The parliamentary session on “super Saturday” could include a vote between Johnson’s new deal (if he has one) and a delay. It could also include a vote on a #FinalSay referendum. It would be quite something if, on the very day we march on Westminster for a #PeoplesVote, parliament actually votes for one.

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.