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SUE WILSON

OPINION: We shouldn’t expect special treatment from EU just because we’re British

Sue Wilson examines whether Associate EU citizenship could provide the much-needed lifeline Brits living in Europe are hoping for.

OPINION: We shouldn't expect special treatment from EU just because we're British
Photo: Deirdre Carney

British citizens living in EU 27 countries, understandably concerned about losing rights and freedoms after Brexit, are looking for alternative ways to protect themselves. Could an Associate EU citizenship provide a much-needed lifeline?

The idea of maintaining our rights via an associated EU membership for citizens is a popular option with Brits in the EU. It’s an idea that is being widely discussed, even in the European parliament, including by EU Brexit Coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt.

Those in favour suggest it should be made available to British citizens already resident in the EU, as we would be most affected by the loss of our EU citizenship rights. Nobody is suggesting, to my knowledge, that any such scheme would be open to Britons living in the UK.

Understandably, the idea has a great deal of appeal, and is being grasped by many as the answer to all their prayers. For those of us living in Europe, we fully expected when we committed to moving to Europe to having EU citizenship rights for life. We made the decision in good faith, never anticipating the threat of Brexit.

We probably couldn’t have detailed most of those membership rights at the time, but we’re certainly aware of them now, and no longer take them for granted. Never did we think that we would lose, for example, our freedom of movement, or that future generations would have fewer opportunities than we have enjoyed.

Freedom of movement is a benefit that only British citizens stand to lose. EU citizens living in the UK will remain citizens of their home countries and will, therefore, retain their EU citizenship rights. It is this fact alone that is encouraging many Brits to seek a change to the rules for our benefit, without the need for reciprocity. However, should we be granted EU citizenship, it could be argued that EU citizens should be granted British citizenship. I think I can say with a degree of certainty that the British government are never going to allow that to happen.

The idea of Associate Citizenship is not a new one. It was discussed in the European parliament in the early days of the UK/EU negotiations, and was also the subject of a failed court case brought before a European court in the Netherlands. Each time the subject has been discussed, it has been rejected and has proved unpopular with European leaders. Whilst the lawyer involved in the Dutch case, Jolyon Maugham, is currently resurrecting his earlier legal challenge, it’s unclear how this might succeed now, where it failed before.

The reasons the associate citizenship idea has been rejected in the past, and likely in the future, are similar to reasons cited during Brexit negotiations. During the early stages of the negotiations, former Prime Minister, Theresa May, hoped to secure similar terms and conditions for the UK after Brexit as the UK currently enjoys as an EU member.

It was rightly pointed out, frequently, that when you leave the club, you do not maintain the same privileges, or the use of facilities enjoyed by fee-paying members. The UK cannot have its cake and eat it. If we hold with that argument, then why should the rules be different for citizens than they are for the whole country?

With our EU citizenship so highly valued, many have suggested making a personal financial contribution could be an answer. British citizens have each paid a small fee through their taxes to enjoy the benefits of EU membership, and would be willing to do so in future.

Of course, those with sufficient funds can already protect themselves from the loss of rights due to Brexit. Cyprus offers a so-called “golden passport” that effectively allows investors to buy EU citizenship if they spend two million euros on a Cypriot property. Some Tory donors have already signed up to this scheme in order to protect themselves, despite having supported the removal of rights for the rest of us mere mortals.

For those of us with more modest means, there are still many thousands willing to dig deep to save their rights. It would seem like a reasonable option, but what of those without the means, even to make a small contribution? Brexit has been divisive enough already. Let’s not divide ourselves further by creating a two-tier system based on your bank balance.

Personally, I want to keep all my rights. I want to cling on to every single one of them and ensure that others have the same rights. I don’t expect special treatment for Brits in the EU, when EU citizens in the UK are being asked to re-apply for a status they already have, and with the risk of being rejected. I don’t expect to receive special treatment from the EU just because I’m British.  Nor do I expect to enjoy the same rights as a non-EU citizen that I currently enjoy as a fully paid-up member.

Would I like to? Yes, of course! Whilst I don’t believe Associate EU citizenship is the answer, or even possible, if it comes off, I’ll be only too happy to be proved wrong.

There is a better and fairer way. We may not be able to stop Brexit from happening at the end of this month, but the future UK/EU partnership arrangements have yet to be negotiated. We must campaign to get the best possible future relationship with the European Union. Who knows? We could even end up with a softer Brexit, membership of the single market and the customs union, and no negligible change to our rights.

Maybe that’s a long shot, but it’s worth the battle. The closer the UK/EU relationship at the end of the transition period, the easier it will be for the next generation to take us back into the EU, where we belong!

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

Member comments

  1. If possible, I would recommend applying for normal citizenship in the EU country where you live.
    I can only speak as a Brit living in Germany (Weimar in Thuringia), but I didn’t find the application process particularly arduous, the officials who helped me were patient, courteous and friendly and the whole thing only cost around 250€ (I believe it’s over a 1000 pounds for the same process in the UK). Also, I wouldn’t say that my German is anywhere near flawless!

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BREXIT

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.”

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