Brit travels entire EU on Brexit fact-finding tour

On June 23rd the United Kingdom will take to the polls and finally decide whether they want to stay as a member of the European Union or leave and go it alone.

Brit travels entire EU on Brexit fact-finding tour
The Local Austria/Maddy French

Working out what’s best for the British people is a complicated task, not helped by the lack of impartial information available about the pros and cons of EU membership.

One frustrated British woman decided to avoid the rhetoric altogether and go straight to the source. Between March and the referendum day in June, Rebecca Sumner Smith, 35, is attempting to travel to every one of the other 27 EU states to find out what life is like for British migrants on the continent.

Along the way she will be blogging on the website We The EU about the people she meets and trying to get to the bottom of what it means to be British in Europe. The Local Austria caught up with Rebecca – who until recently has been living in Berlin – in Vienna and asked her why she started the project.

“I was a British citizen working in Germany and it had been very easy to move there so if you had asked me ‘are you pro-EU’ I would have said ‘yes’,” she says. “But I was really aware if someone put a gun to my head and asked ‘why?’, I couldn’t answer. I thought this is a huge decision. I need to definitely learn more. I’ve probably just taken that to the extreme a bit.”

With Greece and the Czech Republic already done, Rebecca is now heading to eastern Europe before making her way to the Mediterranean and then northern Europe, with a few stops in the UK and Germany in-between. At the end of the trip, she hopes to present something that compares other EU countries with the UK on topics such the economy and migration, as well as offering a perspective on Europe from the Brits who probably understand it best.

“Everybody has an opinion but everybody knows they don’t know enough about it. What I’m really interested in is ‘OK you live in a European country, what did you think about when you moved?’,” she explains.

Rebecca meeting British Chaplain Ricky Yates in Prague. Photo:

Although there is a tendency in the UK to picture British 'expats' on the continent as sun-kissed retirees living out their years in the Costa del Sol, the reality is much more diverse. “The variety has really surprised me,” she says, adding that she’s already met people from across the political spectrum.

What a lot of Brits abroad do have in common, however, is the tendency not to vote in national elections. In the months leading up to the last UK general election in May 2015, only around 22,000 of the 5.5 million eligible Brits living abroad were signed up to vote, according to the UK's Electoral Commission. With much more at stake in the referendum for those living on the continent, it is hoped that turnout in June will be higher. Those who have lived outside the UK for longer than 15 years are banned from taking part, however, and Rebecca is finding many are feeling disenfranchised.

“In lots of ways people who live outside the UK are going to be more tangibly affected, they have more immediate fear as to what will happen to their position,” she says. “Those people who can’t vote, they say ‘I’m not sure I should vote in a general election but this issue does affect me’. If your citizenship is British and you have no right to vote in national elections in your adoptive country, you are sort of a bit lost, starting to feel a bit stateless.”

With three months to go, Rebecca still has time to make up her mind on the UK and Europe, although the more people she meets, the more she realises that it does come down to a feeling of the heart.

“I started with that feeling in my heart that I’m a European and then I thought no that’s not sufficient, I need to know the facts, and now I’ve sort of come full circle again,” she explains.

“I’ve got a lot more to find out but now I feel there is this huge bit of it which is ideological and that’s OK. We can’t avoid the fact that we are an island and this is a test of where we want to fall, how we see ourselves and our identity. In a way that’s kind of OK.”

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”