Brexit Drama Shines a Light on Plight of Citizens’ Rights
It’s become known as the “B word,” something not to be mentioned in polite company.
But, no matter how hard you try, there’s no getting away from Brexit, the saga of a divorce seemingly made in hell.
In the never-ending debate about the UK’s exit from the EU, there is one crucial issue that has stubbornly struggled to make it onto the headlines – citizens’ rights.
One reason for its relative low profile is the ongoing impasse over the Irish border issue and the desire to avoid a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
British Members of the European Parliament have called on EU leaders to urgently put in place a set of “continuity rights” for British nationals who may find themselves legally stranded on the continent in the event of no-deal Brexit. They say the contingency plans that are under way are not enough and will risk the rights of up to 1 million Britons settled in EU member states.
The MEPs want them to have rights including ongoing inflation-linked pensions and healthcare rights, and residency and employment rights, such as so-called frontier worker rights that would allow British nationals living in one country to take a job or offer a service in another member state after Brexit.
But consider this: the combined population of Northern Ireland and Ireland is just over 7 million.
The ability of businesses on both sides of the Irish border to continue to work and live without disruption post Brexit is, of course, of vital importance.
But it could easily be argued that the rights of the EU citizens living and working in the UK – and the British expats on mainland Europe – are of equal (if not greater) importance.
They number some 5 million (3.5 million EU citizens in the UK and more than 1.5 million Brits in Europe) and, with the prospect of a “no-deal Brexit,” looming ever larger by the day, their legal status and rights are increasingly becoming a cause for real concern.
Thus far, though, the “plight” facing this not insubstantial group of people seems to have been elbowed off the agenda, certainly on the UK side.
This is all the more surprising, given that the EU, from the outset of the Brexit negotiations, made the issue of citizens’ rights one of its “red lines” (along with the Irish border and the divorce bill – the bill the UK will have to pay for leaving the EU).
Fortunately, something is being done for some EU member states, including Luxembourg whose government recently sought to clarify the situation for UK citizens living in the country.
If the UK leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal, British citizens in Luxembourg will have a year to apply for permanent residence.
The Dutch government has also recently confirmed that Britons in the Netherlands will retain their right to live and work in the country in the worst-case scenario – the UK crashing out of Europe with ‘no-deal.’
Chris Garratt, one of Luxembourg’s many British long-term residents, is relieved that Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has confirmed his right to stay: “this is great news for me and my family. The lives of so many Britons on the continent are in limbo right now. With the current political mess back home, it’s easy to forget that fundamentally this is about people.”
The problem, though, is that the majority of member states so far have failed to make any such guarantees, least of all legally-binding ones.
These include Belgium which is currently home to thousands of British expats, many working in the EU institutions, such as the European Commission and European Parliament.
Roger Casale, a former UK Labour MP, who now heads up New Europeans, a campaign group based in London and Brussels, is valiantly fighting in the corner of citizens affected by Brexit.
He says, “Britons in Europe are EU citizens and not just British expats and we have always argued and continue to argue that the EU has a duty to protect their rights directly on that basis and not through a degrading and humiliating process of horse-trading in the context of the withdrawal deal.”
Casale says, “I hope British people in the EU feel that although they have been hung out to dry by the British government, they have not been left alone. We have been reaching out across Europe and reminding British people that they are not just UK expats or ‘British in Europe’ but also EU citizens. Their fight is our fight and we are doing all we can to mobilise support from EU citizens whatever their nationality.”
Bart Roelofs from New Europeans Benelux, agrees, telling me in an interview, “now is the time to reach out to the British people in our communities and let them know they are welcome and they are not alone. We call on the Belgium government to follow its Benelux partners and declare the right of UK citizens in Belgium to stay if there is a hard Brexit.”
With 29 March – the day the UK is due to leave the EU – looming large, many expats are increasingly concerned.
These include the likes of Anna Yeadell-Moore, Groningen, 47, a UK citizen who has lived in the Netherlands for 20 years. Born in London, she grew up in Shropshire, before returning to London to study and work. She moved to the Netherlands in 1999 to work for Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service (like the BBC World Service).
A radio and print journalist for more than ten years, she now has her own editing and translation business with clients in, among others, the Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Italy and Germany.
She is also a lecturer in professional writing at Groningen University and is married to a UK citizen.
She says even though the Dutch government has provided reassurances to the British community in the Netherlands, there is still a lot of uncertainty. In particular, she worries about the consequences for her business.
As an editor/translator, she works across EU borders, with much of her income coming from providing services to clients in Belgium, Italy and Germany.
“As I understand it, this can continue during the transition period and hopefully negotiations will result in me being allowed to continue this work. If we crash out with a no deal, then as of 29 March, my business will be confronted with a huge problem.”
When asked about her biggest worry if there is a Brexit deal, she says, “Given the level of uncertainty, my husband and I have discussed ‘going home,’ but that is not without complications. Untangling yourself from 20 years of living in another country is not easy.”
While she is keen for a withdrawal agreement to be agreed to – a no deal is a “nightmare scenario” – she worries about the loss of her freedom of movement.
“Effectively, being landlocked in the Netherlands. We had plans to perhaps retire to France, this now looks in jeopardy.”
She did not even get a chance to vote in the 2016 EU Referendum, saying, “I am effectively disenfranchised. As a UK citizen I can only vote in local elections (I was able to vote in EU elections) here in Holland. Because I have been out of the UK for longer than 15 years, I cannot vote there and I was not allowed to vote in the referendum. I am angry about not being given a say in something that directly affects me.”
“It feels like other people have control over my future.”
The UK government is set for yet another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement – the deal brokered with the EU over the last two years and that was supposed to pave the way for its “orderly” exit – later this month.
But there is no sign yet that British MPs will be any more keen to approve it than the recent House of Commons vote when they overwhelming rejected Theresa May’s deal.
Many argue that the UK has royally messed up the negotiations so much so that the best course of action, even for Brexiteers maybe, is now to stay in and reform the EU from the inside.
While all the talking and political machinations continue, people like Anna Yeadell-Moore just continue to hope and pray that there will be, at some point in the future, that much vaunted “orderly exit.”
Don’t hold your breath.