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‘Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try’

The EU says it won't negotiate "mini deals" and the "contemptuous" UK government doesn't seem interested in actively pursuing the Costa Amendment. But legal experts say ring-fencing the rights of Britons in the EU is achievable if it was just made a priority.

'Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try'
Photo: vchalup2/Depositphotos

Since June 24th 2016, British citizens in the EU have anxiously awaited news of how their future status in their host countries could change with the UK’s departure from the bloc.

Last week’s so-called Costa Amendment offered renewed hope after nearly 1,000 days in limbo. The amendment, passed by the British parliament, calls for Theresa May’s government to “seek at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

This would effectively mean to secure a deal with the EU to ring-fence the citizens rights of 3.6 million citizens in the UK and 1.2 million Britons residing in the EU – regardless of the outcome of ongoing negotiations and regardless of whether her deal is ratified by parliament.

In a follow-up letter to the EU institutions on March 4th, the UK’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Steven Barclay suggested the UK government has taken a halfhearted approach to the Costa Amendment. 

“The Government’s position remains that the Withdrawal Agreement provides the best way of providing confidence to citizens,” wrote Barclay. “The Prime Minister made clear during her statement to the House on 26th February that the Government recognises the significant challenges related to concluding a ring-fenced agreement,” added Barclay.

READ ALSO: What happens next in the fight to protect citizens' rights?

Rights activists responded with indignation to Barclay’s lukewarm effort to negotiate an international treaty on citizens’ rights with the EU.

“It seems completely contemptuous of the Costa motion,” Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy and one of the key legal experts at rights group British in Europe, told The Local. “They have been given a clear mandate by the UK parliament but they have watered it down so it doesn’t mean anything. It shows what Prime Minister May’s priorities are and citizenship rights are not one,” added Morgan.

Morgan argues that there is legal scope for such an international treaty as called for by the Costa Amendment. “Legally it is not a problem. It doesn’t say how they should reach an agreement. It just requires them to try,” says Morgan, who added that British in Europe will “be lobbying the EU very hard” in order for the idea of ring-fencing to be taken seriously.

Last week, the EU Commission said that it would not be willing to negotiate the citizens’ rights aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement separately, although that may simply have been hard talk in the ongoing negotiations and that stance was largely expected.

“The best way to protect the rights of 4.5 million citizens is through the Withdrawal Agreement,” said Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. “We will not negotiate mini deals,” added Andreeva at a press conference on February 28th. The EU Commission had not responded to Barclay’s letter at the time of writing.

The EU has repeatedly asked the UK government to give a clear idea of its desires and intentions in the Brexit process. As Delia Dumaresq, co-chair of British in Italy points out: “The only thing that has the full agreement of the UK parliament is ring-fencing citizens’ rights.”

Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy adds that with the right political will, and an extension to Article 50, such a treaty on citizenship rights could be achieved – and the extension could be justified to that end. The EU Council would simply need to adapt its negotiating guidelines. 

While the EU has officially said it won’t negotiate citizens rights separately on a pan-European basis, a former Commission official told The Local the most likely way the EU would agree to ring-fence citizens' rights, at least temporarily, was by simply extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit. 

“I would expect the EU to be quite sympathetic to this,” said the former Commission official, who did not want to be named.

“The EU has to be concerned with the rights of its citizens in the UK and wants to protect them.” 

But this kind of short term fix is not what campaigners for the UK citizens in the EU and EU nationals in the UK want.

“What we're after here isn't any old agreement, but an agreement under Article 50 which becomes a legally binding international treaty,” Kalba Meadows, a member of rights group British in Europe, told The Local.  

But with just three weeks to go before their lives are potentially turned upside down, some 4.5 million Britons in Europe and Europeans in the UK still don't appear to be a big enough priority for the EU or the UK.

READ MORE: What happens next in the fight to protect rights of Britons in Europe?

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BREXIT

‘Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed’ – How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

A new in-depth survey on British nationals living in the EU has revealed the impact that Brexit has had upon their lives, and their attitudes to their country of origin.

'Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed' - How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

The study, conducted by academics at Lancaster and Birmingham universities, provides a snapshot of how Brits in the EU live – their age, family, work and education – and how they feel about the UK in the six years since the Brexit vote.

Unsurprisingly, it revealed that Brexit has had a major practical impact on the lives of Brits living in the EU – who are now subject to third-country rules and require residency cards or visas and face restrictions on voting and onward movement within the EU.

But the survey’s 1,328 respondents were also asked about their emotions towards the country of their birth.

Eighty percent of respondents said it had changed their feelings towards the UK.

A British woman living in Norway said she felt: “Deep, deep shame. Embarrassed to be British, ashamed that I didn’t try hard enough, or appreciate my EU citizenship.”

“Since Brexit I am disappointed in the UK. I am worried, and no longer feel like I have the same affinity for the country. It’s a shame because I love ‘home’ but the country feels so polarised,” added a British woman in her 30s living in Denmark.

An Austrian resident with dual British-Irish nationality said: “I feel disconnected, like it’s a completely different country from how I left it.

“So much so I feel more connected with my second nationality (Irish) despite the fact I never grew up in Ireland. It’s embarrassing what’s happened in the UK and what continues to happen. It’s like watching a house on fire from afar.”

The experience of living abroad during the pandemic also affected people’s feelings towards the UK, with 43 percent of people saying the UK’s handling of the Covid crisis affected their feelings towards the county.

A British woman in her 50s living in Spain said: “It was shambolic. Too late, too little, mixed messaging, lack of seriousness. So many deaths after what should have been a head start.”

A British man living in Greece described it simply as “a shit show”.

In addition to the Brexit effect, the survey also provided interesting and detailed data on the lives and profiles of Brits who live in the EU;

  • 69 percent had degree-level education
  • 77 percent worked in a professional or managerial role
  • 53 percent are of working age
  • 59 percent have been living in their country of residence for more than five years
  • 78 percent said it was very unlikely that they would move countries in the next five years 
  • The most common reasons for moving country were retirement (40 percent), family reasons (35 percent) and work (30 percent)

Almost all respondents said that Brexit had impacted their lives, with the loss of freedom of movement being the most common effect mentioned.

One man said: “My original plan (pre-2016) was to move to France on retirement, due in 2026. Brexit caused me to move sooner, in order to retain my European citizenship rights. The pandemic helped (indirectly) in that I got locked down in France in 2020, which enabled me to earn residence under the pre-Brexit rules. I had been talking to my employer about doing something similar before the pandemic broke.”

“I moved to France in 2020 in order to protect my right to live and work in France post-Brexit. My migration is 100 percent a result of Brexit,” said one American-British dual national.

Other respondents talked about the post-Brexit admin necessary to gain residency status in their country, financial losses due to the weakening of the pound against the euro and the loss on onward freedom of movement – meaning that Brits resident in one EU country no longer have the right to move to another.

The report also highlighted that only 60 percent of respondents had changed their legal status by security residency since Brexit.

For some Brits in the EU this is not necessary if they already have citizenship of their country of residence (or another EU country such as Ireland) but the report’s author highlighted that: “It may also offer an early indicator that within this population there are some who may find themselves without legal residence status, with consequences in the future for their right to residence, and access to healthcare, welfare and work (among other services).”

READ ALSO What to do if you have missed the Brexit deadline in France 

In total 42 percent of respondents were completely disenfranchised – the 15-year rule means they can no longer vote in the UK, while the loss of EU citizenship means that they cannot vote in European or local elections in their country of residence.

The British government has recently announced the ending of the 15-year rule, giving voting rights to all UK nationals, no matter how long they live outside the UK. 

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