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BREXIT

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead

As citizens' rights coalition group British in Europe winds down, its co-chair Jane Golding tells The Local of the problems that still lie ahead for UK nationals and whether any good at all came out of Brexit for Brits living in the EU.

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead
Members of British in Europe and the3million including co-chair Jane Golding (centre) meet with the EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: British in Europe.

In the winter of 2017, as most Britons living in Europe were still reeling from the shock result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, a small number of individuals and groups came together united by a single aim.

Those ordinary people, who formed the coalition of citizens’ rights groups that became British in Europe, had one objective in mind; to ensure the impact and trauma of the UK’s divorce from the EU did not ruin the lives of an estimated 1.2 million Brits living across the EU.

They were based in all corners of the EU from Berlin to Brussels, central Italy, rural France and the Spanish coast and were “driven by a rage” to protect the rights given to them as EU citizens. 

After the referendum – which many Britons in the EU were barred from voting in – those rights to live, work and build a family in an EU country were under real threat. 

But after five years of relentless campaigning, most of those rights have been protected and whilst things are not quite as straightforward as before most of the hundreds of thousands of British citizens living in the EU have been able to continue their lives pretty much as before.

READ ALSO: Battling Brexit – How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens rights

(Jane Golding speaking at a joint British in Europe/the3million rally in London”. Photo: British in Europe.)
 
‘We’d like to think we made a difference’

That’s thanks in no small way to the endless hours of work, research, lobbying and online meetings carried out by the volunteers at British in Europe and the network of British citizens’ rights groups across Europe they represented.

“We like to think that what we’ve done has made a real difference to the lives of all of these people who had their EU citizenship rights removed,” Golding tells The Local as she reflects on the group’s achievements but also what lies ahead.

“We didn’t take this wholesale removal of our rights sitting down and we did fight to make our voices heard, to get the message out there that what was being done as a result of Brexit was not OK.

“In the end the majority of the rights of UK citizens living in the EU host countries were safeguarded in their host country.”

The right to remain, work and continue to access healthcare or benefits was ensured, whilst British in Europe successfully persuaded the UK government to extend the grace period for when Britons can move back with their EU family as well as lobbying the government to release €3 million in funding to help Britons secure their post Brexit status in Europe.

There were rights that were lost however, such as the right for Britons to be able to continue to move around the EU rather than being landlocked in the country they were in at the time of Brexit or EU-wide recognition of professional qualifications.

The problems that lie ahead for Britons

But what will worry Britons in Europe is that Golding, who described their work as “painstaking legal-based advocacy”, and the rest of the British in Europe team are winding up at the end of February.

There was a will to continue but a lack of funding – an estimated €200,000 a year would have been needed – meant the volunteers were simply unable to commit long term.

Luckily many online support groups for UK citizens will still active, including groups like British in Germany and Remain in France Together, but the concern now for Britons is who will stick up for their rights at the highest level in UK and Europe? Who will give evidence to select committees in Westminster? Who will push their case at the European parliament? Who will work closely with the European Commission and governments around EU nations to ensure that Brexit does not ruin lives in the future? 

READ ALSO: How many Britons in EU acquired post-Brexit residency and how many were rejected?

“It’s a worry,” says Golding. “Our concern is that unlike for EU citizens in the UK there is no independent monitoring authority for citizens’ rights. There are some very good people working on citizens’ rights issues in the European Commission but there are not huge resources for these tasks and there’ll no longer be a coordinating EU-wide group like ours to point to issues and systemic problems.”

One of Golding’s last tasks as co-chair of British in Europe was to give evidence to the joint EU/UK Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights, which was set up to keep a check on whether the citizens’ rights aspect of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was being properly enforced.

‘Those without cards face serious problems’

Last month the Committee released figures that revealed that some some 497,100 Britons in the EU out of an estimated 1.093 million have acquired a post-Brexit residence status – although this doesn’t tell the full story because Britons living in many EU countries have not been obliged to apply for a post Brexit residence permit.

EU countries could choose whether to grant post-Brexit residence status under a constitutive system (applicants had to apply directly to government agencies to be awarded residence status), or a declaratory system (applicants’ rights were not dependent on a government decision).

Golding says it’s clearly a worry that tens of thousands of British citizens had not acquired cards even if it wasn’t obligatory to do so.

“Just how many people out there who still haven’t been reached? In declaratory countries there are still large numbers of people who haven’t registered for their status. That’s a real concern,” she says.

“Then there’s the issue of the delays in receiving cards and the problems that causes, such as accessing services and travel issues. That will be a problem until all the cards are issued and we are nowhere near that in some countries yet.”

“The problem is for most institutions you need to have a card to engage with them on a daily basis and if you haven’t yet got a card then you are a bit stuck – it’s a serious problem.

“When you are accessing employment, health services, social security, we’ve had cases in Germany where people are applying for mortgages, you don’t have to have the card but in some cases it makes your life really difficult if you don’t.”

Other issues include why some residents have been given temporary residence – for five years – when they should have been given permanent residence.

How can you prove you are absent?

A temporary residency status means they are constrained by tighter rules over how long they can leave the country without running the risk of losing residency. 

Those with permanent residency can leave for up to five years without losing residency and those with temporary residence can leave for 6 months (12 months in certain exceptional cases) but the rules are not clear for example over how to prove when the people officially left a country.

Golding says people thinking of leaving their host country need to get advice. She warns that cases will emerge over the next few years – until those with temporary residence have gained permanent residency – to come of people losing residency and those cases may well end up in European courts.

In other words it appears obvious British citizens will still need the kind of support British in Europe has offered, but they won’t be able to call upon it.

The hope is that thanks to British in Europe and the many other citizens’ rights groups that continue to exist in social media groups around Europe, British citizens are better armed and informed to tackle what problems lie ahead.

‘You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU’

And perhaps a more mobilised and united community of British citizens is the only good thing to have emerged out of Brexit for those most affected by it.

“I think what’s come out of this is a much more cohesive force, we’ve created a political force. UK citizens in the EU have got a voice in the political process we didn’t have before. You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU which you couldn’t before,” she said.

And after five years of blood sweat and tears has she herself got over Brexit?

“It’s been an extremely positive experience standing together to defend our rights in the face of something that was, at the time, really very depressing.

“At the time of the referendum we all went through a period of mourning and it’s also caused so many practical problems.”

Like many, Golding took German citizenship to ensure she maintained freedom of movement which she needed for work and requalified as a German lawyer.

“Once you have done these things it at least makes you feel you have secured your livelihood going forward and the position where you live and in that way you can reach some kind of peace,” she said.

Member comments

  1. The EU only understands what they call leverage . Consequently, so long as they want to see the rights of 6 million EU citizens protected in the UK, they’ll be mindful of Brit rights in Europe.

  2. I think a very big thank you is called for to all those who worked so hard and so effectively. Just so that they know.
    Victor peel

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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: What the EU’s new EES system means for travel to Austria

From biometric checks to the 90-day rule and visas - the European Commission has explained to The Local what the EU's new EES system means for people travelling in and out of Austria.

EXPLAINED: What the EU's new EES system means for travel to Austria

You might have seen some rather dramatic headlines about the EU ‘harvesting biometric data’ – so here’s what the EU’s new Entry and Exit System (EES) – due to come into effect next year – actually means if you are travelling in and out of Austria.

The system has been in the works since 2013 and is due to come into effect in May 2023 – although it has been postponed several times before.

It has four stated aims – to improve and modernise border systems; to reinforce security and aid the fight against crime and terrorism; to help EU member states deal with increasing traveller numbers without having to increase the numbers of border staff; and to systematically identify over stayers within the Schengen area [ie people who have stayed longer than their visa or 90-day limit allowance].

The system doesn’t actually change any of the EU’s rules about travel, length of stay etc, but it will make enforcing them easier.

EES is different to ETIAS, which is due to come into effect later in 2023. That won’t affect residents, but will require tourists and those on a short visit to pay €7 for a holiday visa – full details on that HERE.

Where?

The EES is for EU external borders – so if you are travelling between Austria and Germany nothing will change but if you are entering Austria from a non-EU country (including the UK) the new system comes into play.

Who? 

It applies to all non-EU citizens. Dual-nationals are exempt if they are travelling on their EU passport. 

When?

The current start date is May 2023.

What?

Basically the EES changes how passports are checked at the border.

The first change is the addition of biometric data – in addition to the current details in your passport (name, DOB etc) the system will also record facial images and fingerprints of all passengers – so it will be similar to going to the US, where foreign arrivals already have to provide fingerprints.

The second change is through recording onto the system complete details of entry and exit dates; how much of their 90-day limit (if applicable) people have used and whether they have previously been refused entry (see below for full details on the 90 day rules).

Exactly how this applies varies slightly depending on your circumstances.

Tourists – this is the most straightforward category and the one that will apply to the majority of travellers. For tourists or those coming for a short visit little will change apart from having to give fingerprints when they enter. They will also be told how long they can stay in the Schengen area – for visitors from non-Schengen-visa countries like the UK, USA, Canada and Australia this will be 90 days, easily long enough for most holidaymakers.

Second-home owners and other regular visitors without a visa – if you’re a regular visitor to Austria from a non-EU country you will already know about the 90-day rule – find a full explanation HERE.

The rule itself doesn’t change, but one of the stated aims of the new system is to catch overstayers, so anyone hoping to ‘slip under the radar’ with regards to the 90-day limit should forget that idea.

Instead of the current and rather inconsistent system of passport-stamping, each entry and exit to the EU is automatically logged on the system, so that border guards can see how long you have spent in the Schengen area in the preceding 180 days, and whether you have overstayed your limit. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Austria?

Residents in Austria  – if you are a citizen of a non-EU country but have residency in Austria then you are not constrained by the 90-day rule. Under the current system you show your visa or permit at the border and the border official should refrain from stamping your passport.

The automated system does away with passport stamping – which has become a headache for residents since it is inconsistently applied in some countries.

However at this stage it appears that there is no way to link a visa or residency card to a passport for automatic scanning.

The European Commission told The Local: “Non-EU nationals holders of residence permits are not in the scope of the Entry/Exit System and ETIAS. When crossing the borders, holders of EU residence permits should be able to present to the border authorities their valid travel documents and residence permits.”

The Local France also asked the French Interior Ministry – who are in charge of operating border controls in France – and they told us: “EES only concerns non-European nationals, without a long-stay visa or residence permit, who are making private or tourist visits for periods of less than 90 days”.

In other words – EES does not concern people who are residents in an EU country or have a long-stay visa.

What this means in practice is that people with a visa or residency permit cannot use the automated passport gates, and must instead go to a manned booth so that they can show both their passport and residency card/visa. This is likely to mean extra waiting times at busy periods.

Second-home owners and frequent visitors with a visa – As with residents, anyone who has a visa must show it at the border in order to avoid starting the 90-day clock, and that means that visa holders cannot use the automated passport gates – as outlined above.

READ ALSO: How can British second home owners spend more than 90 days in Austria?

The Commison spokesman said: “If you are a non-EU national travelling for a short stay (maximum 90 days in any 180-day period) to a European country using the EES and if you hold a valid visa for your intended purpose of stay then you should present the valid passport and valid visa when crossing the borderYour stay is limited to the number of days authorised by your short stay visa.”

So how will this actually work in practice?

If you’re a tourist or short-stay visitor and you’re travelling by air you probably won’t notice much difference since many airports already have automated passport gates in place for certain travellers. In fact, the Commission says this system will be faster than the current system in place for non-EU arrivals.

If you are a resident, you need to remember to avoid the automated passport gates and choose a manned booth so that you can show your residency card or visa along with your passport.

The Commision told us: “Non-EU citizens residing in the EU are not in the scope of the EES and will not be subject to pre-enrollment of data in the EES via self-service systems. The use of automation remains under the responsibility of the Member States and its availability in border crossing points is not mandatory.”

However things are less clear for people travelling by car – though the control should be made at a Schengen border, not in Austria.

The EES system would require all passengers to get out of the car and have their passports and faces scanned, and scan fingerprints, which would obviously take longer. 

It could make popular trips south (with drivers going through Schengen border controls in the Slovenia-Croatian border) more complicate.

The Commission confirmed that decisions on installing new automated systems at the border is a decision for each Member State – so Slovenia, for example, will have the final say on new arrangements at its border with Croatia.

Further details on EES can be found here.

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