Time is running out for Brexit. On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union (barring an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period). If no deal has been agreed at that point, then there will be no transitional arrangement, no talk of future trade relationships, and no “backstop”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to unilaterally guarantee the rights and entitlements of the 3.7 million EU citizens (around 6% of the total UK population) living in the UK after Brexit. However, critics argue that even giving them permanent leave to remain will still represent a curtailment of their existing rights as EU citizens. For its part, the European Commission has made it clear that it is up to individual EU Member States to respond on an individual basis, asking Member States to take a “generous approach” when it comes to the rights of the one million British citizens living in the EU-27.
Where does this leave Europeans living in Britain? Will they be able to continue living, working, and studying in the UK after Brexit? What sorts of rights should they have after 29 March, and how should those rights be guaranteed? Should they be treated differently from nationals of other, non-European countries? And what should happen to EU nationals who arrive in Britain after Brexit?
What do our readers think? First up, we had a comment sent in from Jude wondering why the status of EU nationals living in Britain after Brexit should be any different than it is today.
To get a response, we put this question to Roger Boaden, founder of the group Expat Citizen Rights in EU (ECREU). What would he say to Jude?
Quite simply, because the British government has decided to impose settled status, which does not contain all of the rights which currently exist for all EU citizens. So, they were given a raft of rights, first of all under the Maastricht Treaty then confirmed by the Lisbon Treaty, free movement, etc., is all part of that; but it’s free movement to take your family to any EU country, to buy a house, get a job, study, whatever it may be.
So, we have said you can travel, work, live, love, in any EU state. Those are the rights which currently exist. Unfortunately, the British government, having decided on settled status, also said in parallel that even if you have permanent status documents, they will no longer be valid when Britain leaves. So, from day one they were flagging up that they were giving people less than they already had.
Secondly, current rights include the whole extended family of any individual. Settled status only includes the immediate family. They have to apply for it, they have to provide documentation, and they have to pay for it. So, those are the essential differences.
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Huw Longton, who was until December 2018 the Communication and Outreach Coordinator at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), an EU citizens’ advice organisation. What would he say?
Well, my view is that it shouldn’t, but the problem is that because the rights of EU citizens in the UK are based upon the European treaties, after Brexit they’ll no longer be covered by the European treaties. So, for that reason, the rights have been renegotiated, which means that some rights remain and other rights don’t remain.
The EU’s starting position on this issue was to retain the treaty rights based upon the treaties, but a sticking point there was the European Court of Justice, which the UK government didn’t want to remain a part of, so that basically opened up a negotiation on what rights will remain and what rights won’t remain.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Ivan, who wonders why Britain should treat EU nationals any differently than Americans, Russians, Chinese, Indians, etc.
How would Roger Boaden respond?
I think you have to start from the position of saying what does EU citizenship actually mean? Every UK citizen, every French citizen, every German citizen has exactly the same rights. They are different from anyone who comes from the United States of any other country. So that’s your starting point, they’re different. There’s a great deal more freedom; freedom of movement across open borders, no need to take with you a passport, necessarily. All of these are very important differences.
What is happening now is that, for example, we Brits living in Europe are going to become third-country nationals. And unless individual countries decide to treat us differently, we will have a status which is not necessarily even as good as the Americans have, because there’s an agreement for them which is in existence. So, the fact that you have got this change is why you have this difference.
Yes, you can argue a case which says treat EU citizens exactly the same in future [as Americans, etc.], and I accept that for those who move to the UK after the UK leaves. But I am talking primarily about the 3.6 million who have decided to settle in the UK; they have enjoyed freedom of movement and the rights which were given to them by the EU for 25 years. Some of those rights are going to be taken away from them.
Finally, what would Huw Longton say to the same comment?
It’s a good question, because I would argue that the UK immigration law is far too restrictive in regards to non-EU citizens anyway, and I don’t think we should after Brexit lower the rights of EU citizens just because other third-country nationals have fewer rights. I think the people who have had the free movement rights already, I don’t think it benefits anybody by taking those rights away. I think there’s a different debate to be had in the UK, which is to say that UK immigration law is actually very restrictive and, in my view, quite punitive, and a better way to go would not be to reduce the rights of a certain class of people but to look at having a more open immigration policy and improving the rights of other citizens.
What will Brexit mean for Europeans living in Britain? Why should there be any change in their status after Brexit? On the other hand, why should EU nationals living in Britain be treated any differently than citizens from India, the US, China, etc.? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!