How Brexit denies expatriates the right to vote on their own futures

20 October 2018
Knowledge Base

by Melvyn Morrison

On 23rd June 2016, British citizens voted by a slim majority (52% versus 48%) to leave the European Union. Nine months later, on 29th March 2017, the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally notify the European Council about its intention to leave the European Union. This not only marked the start of a 2-year period for negotiating the exit terms, but also prompted a discussion about the future rights of expatriates. The UK is thus due to leave the EU on 29th March 2019 after the exit terms have been agreed. If the terms of a so-called ‘divorce settlement’ are not announced by 21st January 2019, several options are available including leaving the EU without a deal, and delaying departure by seeking extension of the deadline with the unanimous support of the UK and the other 27 EU countries. However, the UK’s relationship with the EU will still remain largely the same until after the transition period that is presently scheduled to end on 31st December 2020. UK expatriates would certainly have liked to have been formally consulted about crucial decisions affecting their futures. 
As Mrs. May continues to reiterate, it seems that Brexit is ‘all about taking account of what the British people want’. But were the opinions of the British expatriates living and working outside the UK, elsewhere in Europe, also taken into account? A very good question, especially when you realise that British expatriates who have lived abroad for more than 15 years were actually denied the right to vote in the Brexit referendum, and that these are the very people whose futures are most at stake, having devoted a significant part of their life to building up their businesses, purchasing homes, raising families, contributing to the pension and health insurance schemes of their host countries, and paying local taxes. Consequently, the members of the British expatriate community are far from happy about this sad state of affairs. Many expatriates perceive the stance taken by the British government as being an invasive and imminent threat to their livelihoods. Although Mrs. May states: ‘The people voted to leave the EU’, she is obviously not speaking on behalf of all of the 1.3 million British expatriates living and working elsewhere in Europe.
British expatriates could lose their right to continue freely living and working anywhere in the EU

When Brexit does come into effect, many British expatriates in continental Europe (and also expatriates from EU countries residing in the UK) run the risk of losing lose their EU citizenship, i.e. they will potentially no longer be able to benefit from the right of free movement within the EU or the right to reside in any EU member state. Although the 1969 Vienna Convention protects the status of individuals in relation to ‘acquired rights’ (this Convention states that ‘the termination of a treaty does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination’), it is still unclear whether these current rights of free movement will be legally recognized as ‘acquired’ and therefore protected when Brexit comes into effect. Consequently, one of the main priorities for the UK government is to reach agreement with the EU in order to ensure that British expatriates continue to benefit from their present rights, whilst also offering a reciprocal arrangement to EU nationals who live and work in the UK. However, since very little has yet been formally agreed between the EU and the UK, the time to do so is quickly running out. Expatriates throughout the whole of the EU are therefore justifiably becoming increasingly concerned. In a worse-case scenario, many British expatriates could lose their right to continue freely living and working anywhere in the EU. Conversely, the futures of EU expatriates in the UK who incidentally were also denied the right to vote in the Brexit referendum, would also be similarly affected.

The announcement by the British government to leave the EU has prompted a large number of British expatriates to become citizens of their host countries in order to safeguard their own futures. During 2016 (the year in which the UK voted to leave the EU), the number of British nationals who became citizens of another EU country more than doubled. Although some EU countries have been quick to recognize the important role that expatriates play in helping to support their economies, and have drawn up a set of requirements to be fulfilled in order to award citizenship to those expatriates who are eligible, the implementation of Brexit will undoubtedly restrict the scope of rights and freedoms presently available to expatriates within the EU. For example, UK expatriates living abroad could lose the right to receive pensions paid from the UK, flights by airlines could stop due to the incompatibility of national safety regulations, and expatriates moving abroad may no longer be able to automatically exchange their driving licences for driving licences from their host country and may even be required to resit their driving test.

EU countries are also implementing their own individual rules relating to the futures of their expatriate communities. For example, a British expatriate working and living in the Netherlands or in Austria normally has to renounce his/her British nationality in order to qualify, whereas some other countries do allow ‘dual nationality’. Germany presently accepts dual nationality only when this involves other member states of the EU, so UK nationals who qualify can still, for the time being, apply to become German citizens without having to renounce their UK nationality. However, when Brexit comes into effect, the UK will no longer be a member state of the EU, and new applicants in Germany will have to renounce their UK nationality. The time taken to process these applications from expatriates also varies per country and, to a large extent, is determined by the number of applications received. Many EU countries have been inundated with applications, resulting in longer waiting times before a decision is reached. For example, in Belgium, the waiting time is currently approximately 4 months, whilst in Germany, the waiting time for applicants is typically between 6 and 12 months.

In the case of a UK expatriate applying for Belgian citizenship, in order to qualify, the applicant must have resided in Belgium for a minimum of 5 years, demonstrate the ability to speak one of the three national languages (Dutch, French or German), and be able to submit proof of social and economic integration. Previously in Germany, anyone who had been married to a German for 6 years would be eligible for citizenship. However, in 2017, this was amended to anyone who has been married to a German for 2 years and has lived in Germany for 3 years. In the case of EU nationals living in the UK, the process seems to be much more complex, expensive and cumbersome. For example, they have to fill in an application form that is 85 pages long. More alarmingly, it has been reported that up to one third of these applications in the UK are currently being rejected. Brexit should not mean that the lives of people who have settled in the UK are turned upside-down.

Whether or not the UK and the EU will be able to reach an amicable understanding and formally iron out the differences that divide them, is still unclear. Nothing concrete seems to have been agreed in terms of implementing new plans, and instead, relentless rounds of talks have failed to pave the way for a soft Brexit where trade agreements, customs agreements, and rules governing the right of free movement are explicitly defined. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, recently told the British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Brexit summit in Salzburg that her Chequers Plan was unworkable. The UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the UK Brexit Secretary, David Davis, both resigned within a few days of the Chequers Plan being announced. During her recent speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, Mrs. May did not make any reference to her Chequers Plan.

Many multinational banks and financial institutions have already announced contingency plans to move their operations from the UK to the continent in preparation for a no-deal scenario. Consequently, the relocation of thousands of employees to Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin and Luxembourg will substantially increase the prices of residential and commercial property at these financial hubs.

Many people are looking forward to seeing closure for Brexit

Moreover, the failure to reach agreement about the customs arrangements for the Northern Ireland border has seriously impeded progress in the Brexit negotiations. Plans for clinching a Brexit deal have now been put on hold by EU leaders at a special EU summit in Brussels. Mrs. May is presently considering a plan to delay the departure of the UK from the EU. This would postpone the proposed transition date for Brexit until the end of 2021. However, this additional delay would cost the UK an additional £10 billion annually, on top of the £39 billion ‘divorce settlement’ already payable to the EU. Suffice to say, many people (including expatriates) are looking forward to seeing closure for Brexit: the negotiations have already dragged on for far too long.

The French president, Mr. Macron, recently announced that his country was preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Apparently, UK expatriates in France would become ‘illegals’ after 29th March next year, and would need to apply for residency status and work permits. British visitors would also need a visa to enter France. British doctors and pharmacists would no longer be allowed to practice in France. Mrs. Merkel has announced that Germany is also preparing contingency plans, raising concerns about the future of the estimated 100,000 UK expatriates in Germany, many of whom have been living there for many years. Moreover, what will happen to the teachers in Germany who have British citizenship, but are presently classed as German civil servants?

Without a Brexit agreement, more stringent customs checks could be reimposed at international borders, causing major disruption to international supply chains at key ports such as Dover, Calais and Dunkirk. Mrs. May has already announced contingency plans to stockpile commodities such as medicines and food that could become scarce. Although British fishermen would no longer be restricted by EC quotas, they still have to export their catches to mainland Europe quickly in order to keep them fresh. Thanks to the EU’s free movement of goods rules, it presently only takes 2 minutes to process a lorry at Dover. However, since more than 10,000 lorries pass through the port of Dover every day, any additional processing time would result in massive tailbacks and traffic jams on the M20 motorway into Dover. As the main gateway between the UK and Europe, a state of chaos could ensue causing the port of Dover to lose significant amounts of revenue. Just imagine having to disembark from the Eurostar train at Calais to have your baggage checked by French customs if, of course, the Eurostar still continues to operate between the UK and the continent. Just imagine the UK no longer being part of Europol, and not receiving vital intelligence reports linked to international terrorism. According to Mr. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UKIP party: ‘Ultimately, the Brexit referendum will be settled on the issue of safety and security.’ One of the main objectives of the Brexit referendum is for the UK to regain control of its own borders and prevent the mass immigration of unskilled workers and the unrestricted movement of criminals and terrorists across borders. Whilst this policy would also enable the UK to welcome skilled workers from abroad, some highly-skilled EU workers who are unsure about their futures have already left the UK.

Time is a precious commodity that is now in very short supply

According to Mrs. May: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Up to now, Mrs. May has also rejected the existing Norway model, i.e. remaining in the single market, staying in the customs union, whilst accepting a number of preconditions from the EU. The EU has stated that a Canada-style agreement with free-trade without tariffs or quotas would be more acceptable. However, Brexit negotiations that are not based on an existing model may take too long to negotiate. A limited amount of time still remains for real progress to be made. In the worst-case scenario of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, welcome to a whole new world of uncertainty and chaos, with potential restrictions on freedom of movement, trade, travel, research and education. This is the Doomsday scenario where not only the expatriates, but also both the UK and the EU will lose out. However, all is not yet lost. A limited amount of optimism and goodwill still exists, but the EU policymakers as well as the UK government will have to be more flexible in order to reach an amicable divorce settlement. Only time will tell, however time is a precious commodity that is now in very short supply.

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