‘Enough is enough’: Brits living in Europe take citizens’ rights fight to London

As the clock ticks down and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit potentially looms, rights groups representing Britons living in the EU and EU citizens in the UK took their struggle to Westminster on Monday.

'Enough is enough': Brits living in Europe take citizens' rights fight to London
Campaigners from British in Europe and the 3Million deliver their letter to the British PM at Downing Street on Monday. Photo: British in Europe

They called on the UK and the EU to safeguard the post-Brexit citizenship rights of approximately five million people living in the UK and the EU. The call comes on a day of action branded ‘the last mile citizens' lobby’.

Campaigners formed a human chain on Monday November 5th from Parliament Square to 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British PM Theresa May, to deliver a letter from the rights groups outlining demands for citizenship rights to be protected and ring-fenced regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

“Enough is enough – we need the UK government and the EU to honour the commitments already made to us during the negotiations, no matter what,” said a statement from British in Europe.

“We are campaigning, alongside our friends the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK, for the UK government and the EU to commit now to ring-fencing and implementing the citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50 – no matter what the outcome on Brexit.”

“You jointly have it within your powers to end this nightmare immediately for over 4 million of us, by taking the true moral high ground and publicly committing to honouring these agreements on our rights – whatever the outcome of the rest of the negotiations,” the3million and British in Europe wrote in an open letter to the UK’s and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiators in September.  

Participants in the human chain included social care workers, nurses, unpaid carers and other people who could fall victim to a hostile environment if their rights are not secured in a no-deal scenario. There will also be a rally in Parliament Square and a mass lobby of MPs in Parliament. 

For those who couldn't attend in person but wanted to participate, the grassroots rights movement British in Europe is calling on people to join its e-lobby by sending a letter to their local MP or by taking to Twitter.

The EU and the UK agreed on a package of reciprocal rights for citizens post-Brexit in the so-called Withdrawal Agreement, first announced in December 2017 and confirmed in a final draft in March 2018.

But those rights are contingent to the UK and the EU reaching agreement on the broader and outstanding Brexit issues, which include the ongoing problem of the Irish border. Campaigners fear they will be left high and dry if the withdrawal agreement is scrapped.

The day of action and the campaign to ring-fence rights regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations has the broad support of a group of cross-party British MPs.

“Fairness, common sense and mutual interest all dictate the rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe should be protected after Brexit. I entirely support those who are campaigning to ensure that this happens,” Dominic Grieve QC, Conservative MP and former Attorney General, will tell Parliament in an address on Monday, according to a statement by British in Europe.

“A significant amount of the anxiety EU nationals in the UK and British citizens in the EU are experiencing about their futures could be alleviated by the UK government seeking agreement with the EU that they will honour their agreement on citizens' rights, even in the event of no deal,” Paul Blomfield, Labour MP and shadow Brexit minister, is expected to add.

Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat MP, will say in his address to parliament that “five million people have been living under a cloud of uncertainty for more than two years now.

The government must guarantee – in law – the rights of all EU citizens in the UK, no matter the outcome of the negotiations.”

The campaign has not only found cross-party support in the UK, but support from European politicians too.

“I am directly affected by this issue,” French Senator Olivier Cadic, who is resident in the UK and represents French citizens in the country, told The Local.

“After more than two years and five months since the referendum it is totally unbelievable to still not know what Brexit means.”

Cadic has joined the campaign to ring-fence citizens rights because he suspects a no-deal Brexit “looks increasingly likely” due to the impasse on the issue of the Irish border. “

“How can we prepare for a no-deal Brexit?” said Cadic, noting that many citizens have already made arrangements based on the terms in the Withdrawal Agreement. 

Thousands of Brits in France are in the process of applying for a Carte de Séjour residency permit as they have been advised to do by France's Ministry of Interior.

Thousands of Brits across Europe are also applying to gain citizenship of their adopted countries as a way of guaranteeing their rights.

Member comments

  1. The French Minister of the Interior has asked us to apply for a Carte de Séjour, but how can we do that when the prefecture only releases a very small number of appointment times at midnight on a Sunday? I have been trying for weeks to get an appointment, getting more and more fretful as time goes on. Politicians, please sort it out!

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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.”