Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Opinion

Brits in EU-27 are uncertain, alone and far from protected

  • The right of UK citizens living and working in the EU to continue to have freedom of movement was dropped from the initial Brexit joint agreement

"From the very beginning of the UK's negotiations to leave the European Union I have consistently said that protecting your rights — together with the rights of UK nationals living in EU countries — has been my first priority."

This quote from Theresa May's open letter in London's Evening Standard encapsulates how the UK government has consistently seen us 1.2 million British citizens in Europe: apparently as a parenthesis or afterthought that doesn't even warrant its own sentence.

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And while there has been some progress on citizens' rights, last Friday's agreement has not provided us with the certainty, control or reassurance that we need to get on with our lives as we do now.

For example, on the issue of residency, it looks as though we will lose automatic rights to this and in some countries may need to go through an application process to secure it.

Having to apply for a status carries risks, as applications can be rejected as well as holding the possibility of criminal background checks for people who have lived and worked in Europe for years.

Secondly, some of the most salient issues for working UK nationals in the EU-27 have been deemed "out of scope" for the first phase of the talks and have been bumped into phase two.

These include free movement, cross border service provision and whether professional qualifications will still be recognised and economic rights apply across the EU-27.

The sequence for resolving the future mobility prospects of Brits in Europe (four-in-five of whom are working age or younger) is a contested issue.

It has been said that it was never really on the table in phase one, although the EU's negotiating directives in May 2017 strongly indicate otherwise.

Verhofstadt to the rescue?

Fortunately, the European Parliament's lead Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt has confirmed continuing free movement (which holds the key to much of this) for UK nationals in the EU as one of five outstanding issues in the parliament's resolution on the negotiations being voted on this week.

But we need to know what hard reassurances there are that these issues won't get lost amid future rows over airline slots and fishing quotas.

To put a human face, take the case study of Sarah, who has lived in the French Alps for 18 years, where she and her husband, a chef, run a catering business.

They work in France and throughout Europe, including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Work outside France accounts for about half of their yearly income.

Based on what's on offer at the moment, they will probably be allowed to stay in France and work there.

But without the ability to provide services across the EU-27, what happens to their business and their livelihood?

Perhaps most urgently, with 60 percent of British people living in Europe unable (note: not unwilling) to vote in 2016's EU referendum it is absolutely essential for us to have a real champion to fight our corner.

And the UK has not risen to the task so far.

No meeting with Davis

Not only has David Davis not responded to numerous requests to meet the 'British in Europe' group (Michel Barnier has met us twice and wants to do so again) but the British government wasted a precious window to protect us because it did not take up the EU's comprehensive offer on citizens' rights back in June.

As EU law expert Steve Peers observed in a recent blog: "I recently met a UK civil servant who admitted that the UK side is not interested in negotiating about such details, despite the UK government's public expressions of concern for UK citizens in the EU27. The awkward fact here is that, due to the inherent reciprocity in this aspect of the talks, the UK government could not be an effective advocate for retaining UK citizens' rights in the EU27 – because of its primary interest was in curtailing rights of EU27 citizens in the UK."

Contrast this with last autumn's statement from UK minister for the constitution, Chris Skidmore, announcing the government's intention to restore voting rights to all British citizens living overseas:

"Following the British people's decision to leave the EU, we now need to strengthen ties with countries around the world and show the UK is an outward-facing nation. Our expat community has an important role to play in helping Britain expand international trade, especially given two-thirds of expats live outside the EU."

Two-thirds may well live outside the EU.

But the third of us who are still here are the litmus test for how the UK views its global role after Brexit. That's why our continuing economic mobility - and thus the ongoing competitiveness of its citizens in Europe – is so important and must not be bargained away.

Laura Shields is a member of the British in Europe coalition, which represents around 35,000 UK citizens in Europe

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