OPINION: It’s no surprise Brits in Spain are confused by the language of Brexit

Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain tackles some of the common misconceptions regarding Brexit.

OPINION: It's no surprise Brits in Spain are confused by the language of Brexit
Photo: Bremain in Spain montage

Are you confused about the terminology used to describe leaving the European Union? Don’t worry: you’re not alone!

Many British citizens don’t understand what’s happening with their rights after Brexit. With politicians and journalists using terms such as “no-deal Brexit” loosely, it’s a recipe for confusion and unnecessary concern.

The most common misconception is that the much-discussed possibility of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020 is the same as the no-deal exit we feared last year. There is, however, a significant difference between the two.

In 2019, a no-deal Brexit was a real threat. The chance of securing a deal with the EU seemed remote or impossible. Three Brexit deadlines were missed because of the constant lack of agreement and the UK parliament’s efforts to avert no-deal at any cost. Furthermore, the government was spending millions of tax-payers funds on contingencies plans aimed at averting the worst consequences of leaving the EU without a deal.

Those consequences included an ongoing lack of agreement about our citizens’ rights, leaving us with only the concept of retaining some rights thanks to the efforts of the Spanish government, but only if the British government reciprocated re Spanish citizens living in the UK. It’s no wonder that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit was the outcome most feared by Brits in Europe in 2019.


Photo: AFP

So, what’s different about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020, and should we be worried? 

Of course, there’s cause for concern re the effect of any no-deal Brexit on the British economy, jobs, NHS, etc. For British citizens living in the EU, the impact on the Pound to Euro exchange rate is a major concern.

However, there is one very significant difference about this new no-deal threat. In 2019, leaving without a deal meant leaving with nothing – i.e. without the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). It is the WA that provides the protection for most, if not all, of our citizens’ rights, such as healthcare and pensions.

A no-deal Brexit in 2020 should actually be referred to as a “no-trade-deal Brexit”, as it would mean leaving without a future trading deal agreed with the EU but with our rights protected by the WA intact. With the WA expected to be ratified this month, we are all set to leave the EU with this deal on January 31st. The future arrangements are not yet determined and will form the next, and most difficult, part of the negotiations.

The Withdrawal Agreement itself causes more confusion. It is frequently mistaken for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) and the media regularly mix up the terms.

The WAB is the UK legislation required to ratify the WA and enact it in UK law. It does not require any involvement from, or agreement with, the EU.

Concerns about government changes to the WAB – e.g. the undermining of workers’ rights, environmental protection, etc. – have caused many people to question whether this would affect the ratification of the WA by the EU. In fact, many have mistakenly thought it was the WA that the government had amended, not the WAB. While those changes are troubling to the EU, they do not affect its commitment to the WA, which concerns the Brexit ‘divorce’ and not future arrangements.

Any plans by the British government to undermine standards will be taken seriously by the EU and will feature prominently in negotiations about the future trading relationship.

The new EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, says the negotiations are unlikely to be concluded within Boris Johnson’s desired timescale, meaning the transition period must be extended. In case you’re not sufficiently confused by now, the transition period is referred to by the British government as the “implementation period”. Johnson is firmly against any extension to the transition period and is attempting to amend the WAB to rule one out. However, as with all legal matters, laws can be made and unmade.

To summarise, while a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020 is a damaging and worrying threat, it does not mean the loss of our citizens’ rights, as set down in the WA – those will be set in stone, for our lifetimes, and will be protected by international treaty. While leaving without a trade deal is possible, and perhaps the desired goal of many government politicians, we must campaign to prevent it.

Whatever your concerns about Brexit, your citizens’ rights – as outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement – are safe once the WA is ratified. The fight to expand those rights, to include important benefits such as freedom of movement, will continue. Even after we have left the EU, there’s a lot still to be determined and negotiated. Even on February 1st, Brexit will be far from done.

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.