Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights?

Groups of volunteers are spending all their time and hard-earned cash on fighting for the rights of Britons across the EU who are directly affected by Brexit. The British government needs to finally make the 1.2 million citizens in the EU a real priority and ease the burden on campaigners, writes Ben McPartland.

Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights?
Photo: AFP

Last week a team of volunteers in different parts of France worked late into the night trying to interpret the newly published French law that spells out what will happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The law is hugely important for the lives and futures of 150,000 Brits in France.

The volunteers, who form the “citizens rights” team at Remain in France Together (RIFT), put aside their normal lives and got on with the job of providing information to the thousands of anxious Brits who were waiting desperately for news of what their futures might hold if Britain crashes out of the EU in a few weeks' time.

These are the same team of volunteers who have spent their own money travelling to Paris to lobby the French government to alert them to the issues Britons are facing across the country.

Of course, it's not just in France where unpaid volunteers have taken it upon themselves to explain the impact of Brexit on health cover, driving licenses and residency rights and basically to stick up for the citizens' rights of anxious Britons, whose lives and health have been damaged by nearly three years of limbo.

The coalition group British in Europe, with linked campaign groups across the EU, has led the way in campaigning and lobbying from Brussels to London and from Berlin to Strasbourg, meeting with UK and EU politicians to fight for the rights of Britons.

In Italy unpaid campaigners from the group British in Italy have actively lobbied the Italian government, which eventually led to Rome becoming the first EU government to guarantee the rights of British citizens in the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Some campaigners say they risk losing their jobs, most say they have already lost their social lives. All have had to dig deep into their savings.

But they know that thousands of worried British citizens now look to them for support, information and advice, more than they do their own government.

But why have the livelihoods of 1.2 million British citizens – that's more than the combined populations of Liverpool and Manchester – across the EU seemingly been left in the hands, albeit very capable ones, of volunteers?

And why have the top ministers in the British government and Prime Minister Theresa May refused to meet those representing the 1.2 million in the last two and a half years?

“Whilst I do believe that those we have met have a genuine desire to help us, they are hampered by the prime minister's desire to limit the rights and freedoms of EU citizens in the UK,” says Bremain in Spain's Sue Wilson.

Wilson says her campaign work has left a deep hole in her pocket.

“It has cost me thousands of pounds (I've stopped counting!) of my own money, which as a pensioner I can ill afford, and I'm working longer hours than I ever did during my career.”

Delia Dumaresq from the group British in Italy summed up the difficulties they faced.

“We are a committee of seven and for some of us, it is a full-time job. We do not have any funding, nor even the means to cover our travel costs which are increasingly onerous as we try to reach more and more British nationals resident here,” she said.

Would other EU countries such as France, which provides MPs for its overseas residents and has passed a law to protect the rights of those who return from the UK after Brexit, really have left so many of its citizens to fend for themselves like this?

The British government hasn't been entirely idle, of course or at least its embassies haven't.

Embassy staff have met with these volunteer groups to hear their concerns about the real issues on the ground and they have passed them on in meetings with officials from interior ministries of EU governments.

Sometimes those messages are heard.

British embassies across the EU have also been holding “outreach” meetings in most countries, which have been attended by thousands of British citizens.

But despite a genuine desire to help on the part of officials, many of those who went to meetings in France report that their questions mostly go unanswered.

That's not necessarily the fault of the embassy staff or the ambassador, of course. Concrete information has been hard to come by over the last two years and often they have come under fire for being the Brexit messenger.

But the simple fact is Theresa May – and her speeches over the last two years give this away – has never made the 1.2 million Britons who took advantage of freedom of movement her priority.

British in Italy's Delia Dumaresq said: “Have we had adequate support from the Embassy or the British government? In a nutshell: no.

“The British government, despite insisting that our citizens' rights are its priority, has done nothing to assist us or any of the other British in EU groups to reach as many British nationals as possible, to inform them of their rights and of what may follow,” she said.

British in Europe campaigners deliver letter to Downing Street. Photo: AFP

“We've always made the running – requesting meetings with the embassy, providing copies of documents we have prepared for the Italian government.

“When it comes to reaching out to the wider audience of British nationals living in Italy, providing them with information on their rights and on events as they unfold in the Brexit pantomime, we certainly have done a lot more [than the embassy].”

But as crunch time approaches it's still not too late for the British government to show some real interest in 1.2 million people and take the burden off these under-pressure volunteers. Or at least share it.

As for what embassies could do to help, British in Italy's Delia Dumaresq suggests “an advertising campaign to inform British nationals here of their existing rights – to advise people to register with their local commune, or exchange their British driving licence before March 29th, to inform them that the Italian government has assured us British nationals will not be 'illegal' after March 30th in the event of a No Deal.”

The embassy could provide “considerable help” by setting up a helpline with information on people's rights, on where to find more information on specific areas and/or with a person that a caller could speak to, British in Italy suggests.

“Such wider 'publicity' that the embassy could give to these issues with their Brexit budgets would assist enormously. People are frankly worried sick about what will happen to them, their families, their jobs, their homes and almost more importantly, their healthcare after March 30th,” said Dumaresq.

These measures could be taken by embassies across the EU if the foreign office responded to their call for help. 

Brits can at least for now rely on campaigners, as Bremain in Spain's head Sue Wilson pledges.

“It's not like I have a choice – I've never felt so strongly about anything in my entire life, and no matter what happens next, I'll be in this until the end.”

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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.”