The Local’s view: Most Brits in Europe didn’t ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work

The EU has given hundreds of thousands of Brits the chance to build lives abroad. Most Brits in Europe didn't choose Brexit, but now it's happening we have an important choice to make, writes The Local's James Savage.

The Local's view: Most Brits in Europe didn't ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work
The Local runs news sites in nine European countries. Photo: AFP

The British MEPs – many of whom were only elected in May – are packing their bags in Brussels for the last time. British ministers have attended their last European Council meetings. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has signed the document ratifying Britain's exit from the EU. 

And on Friday night Big Ben will (much to the frustration of some pro-Brexit MPs) witness the end of 47 years of British membership of the European project in silence.

If Britain ever rejoins, it will be many years in the future and on very different terms. Every sign is that the immediate future relationship between Britain and the EU will be a far looser relationship than Norway or even Switzerland currently have. Free movement won't be a part of it.

If you, like me, are a Brit who made your home in another EU country it's a strange feeling.

I hopped on a train to Paris at 22, got a job, fell in love with a Swede and eventually settled in Sweden. Others have moved for work, to retire, to study – or like me, just on a whim – and many have stayed. When my nieces in England are 22, many of those opportunities will be closed to them. But for too many Britons, the idea of living in another country – especially one where the language isn't English – is entirely alien.

Being an EU citizen in another EU country is a funny thing. Culturally you're an immigrant – a new language, a different culture, a frustratingly unfamiliar bureaucracy. Yet in an important sense you are there as of right, as a European citizen, not as a privilege.

For those of us already in an EU country that right is only partially protected after Brexit: we will be legal residents but not citizens, and we will lose our right to vote (in most countries) and stand for election in local, regional and European elections as well as onward freedom of movement to other European countries.

There are Brits living in the EU who welcome Brexit, and not only because they want to keep immigrants out of the UK (though some people with an underdeveloped sense of irony hold that view too).

But when we asked The Local's readers for your feelings ahead of Brexit Day, the overall sentiment was one of depression – the word 'devastated' came up again and again. 'Like a hangover that won't go away' was another comment. 

And your thoughts weren't primarily occupied by your own predicaments – many of you were more worried about the big picture: Britain's future, Europe's future and the future of friends and family left behind. 

The Brexit negotiations have been deeply unsettling for many Brits living in the EU, as they have for EU citizens in the UK. We've often been asked to trust politicians with a shaky grasp of our realities and sometimes an open disdain for our views. Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' jibe may not have been meant for us, but for some it felt like it.

Brexit has also engendered a venomous political debate that has seeped into our relationships with friends and family. We now live in a world where we either approve of or disdain the political opinions of people with whom we had never previously even discussed politics. Increased engagement in politics, we've learned, isn't always an unalloyed sign of progress.

But as withdrawal approaches these tensions have subsided a bit, as they must. As Brexit became inevitable, the subject moved further into the background at the Christmas dinner table. Choosing not to fight a culture war doesn't mean renouncing your views.

Thankfully most Brits living around the EU will be able to continue their lives as before, even if some important issues – such as the rights of those who work in different countries, the rights of people who don't meet various income requirements for residency and onward freedom of movement – remain unsolved. The Local will be watching these issues closely over the coming months and years.  

Indeed, if we're to play the glad game (and why not?), some genuine positives have come out of this process: more of us have reached out to fellow Brits in our communities across Europe and built deep and lasting bonds – something that's been palpable among the Brits who read The Local; more of us have become citizens in the countries in which we live, planting our masts firmly where we live, work and love; along with countless people in Britain we have reflected on what unites us as Europeans, not only what distinguishes us as Brits.

These don't compensate fully for the negatives, but they're worth recognizing.

Perhaps we've also reflected on divisions in British society, divisions reflected across Europe, that gave rise to Brexit in the first place. 

Britain enters a new world on Friday night, and so do Brits living in the EU. We might not have chosen this world, but we can choose how we relate to it. We should choose carefully.


James Savage is Publisher and co-founder of The Local Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @SavLocal


Member comments

  1. I am disappointed, although not surprised to see yet another biased article. I voted for Brexit because I absolutely disagree with how the EU is run. I could not in all good conscience vote for such an undemocratic, non-transparent, wasteful system. I do not agree with the economis sytems of the EU and I defintely do not agree with the Euro. It has crippled south european countries. There are too many EU policies that I find sinister and it is clear to anyone who wants to look that it is as good as a federation. Another United States. Well, we’ve seen how well they work and I did not want Britain to be part of that. I live in France simply because I could afford a house here without a mortgage. Simple. I have also lived in the Far East.

    Please note tnhat I believe Britian desperately needs immigration as we do not have enough people for certain jobs. Brexit was not about immigration for everyone and it is prejudicial to state it was the only reason for Brexit but typical of the media. How sad.

    I will not vote for something I disagree with.
    The world outside of the EU is much bigger than the EU. Let’s get on with working with the whole world and thank goodness we are getting our of the EU protectionist economics.

    Louise Rollason

  2. I totally agree with you, Louise. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Although I’m based in France, I still work for, and pay taxes in, the UK. I unfortunately couldn’t vote, as I’m an Italian citizen, and if I could, I would have voted against Brexit. I always hoped that the UK would have been able to help the EU get out of the bordello they’re in, by being in the EU. Too late now, GB has left. I wish the EU all the best, but I honestly don’t see the silver lining yet. Take care.

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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.”