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29 August 2019

What happens to the Brexpats in a no-deal Brexit?

By Samuel Kerr

Fiona Godfrey is busy.

British-born and newly-Luxembourgish, she co-chairs British in Europe, an organisation that advocates for the rights of the 1.3 million British citizens living in the EU27, for whom a no-deal Brexit could be catastrophic.

The founder of British Immigrants Living in Luxembourg (BRILL) and secretary general of the European Public Health Association, Godfrey also found time to run for the pro-European, federalist Volt party in the recent European elections – though she missed out on a seat.

As the UK government barrels towards no deal, she is focusing on one principle more than any other. Whatever the issue, she says, the key is reciprocity.

Healthcare is one of the most concerning topics for people on either side of a disorderly Brexit, with commitments so far only extending to “access” to healthcare, rather than reciprocal free access.

British in Europe and the3million group (the largest organisation advocating for EU citizens in the UK) are worried that the UK and EU27 governments will continue to circle one another suspiciously, eroding any remaining goodwill.

To illustrate her concerns, Godfrey tells me the story of a British person in Basildon who was advised to bring their passport with them when collecting their medication from the NHS in future – suggesting the possibility that EU27 citizens might be de-prioritised or forced to pay after 31 October.

In turn, this could lead to grave repercussions for British citizens living in the EU27.

In March, Godfrey gave a speech at the European Parliament voicing the distress following the UK’s announcement in January that reciprocal free healthcare was not guaranteed after Brexit.

Indeed, an overseas pensioner contacted British in Europe to indicate that they were so traumatised by the possibility of being unable to afford or continue their chemotherapy treatment that they had contacted Dignitas and a similar clinic in Belgium to consider their options.

Like healthcare, freedom of movement has always been considered a two-way street and this is unlikely to end after Brexit. The Home Secretary’s announcement that freedom of movement would end on the night of 31 October has mobilised European politicians to scrutinise the treatment of their citizens in the UK, and how to treat British citizens in return.

France, Germany and Spain are just some of the countries that have included reciprocity clauses in their no-deal contingency legislation.

Yet even if good faith is retained, procedural difficulties remain.

As a British citizen living and working in France, for example, your existing EU citizenship means that there is no current legal requirement to get a carte de séjour (residence permit). This could pose a significant problem if the UK leaves with no deal on 31 October. For instance, if you needed to briefly return to the UK for a wedding/funeral/Christmas, there wouldn’t be any problems with your flight home, but how could you prove your residential status to French customs upon re-entry?

Currently, the only existing agreement is a reciprocal visa-waiver that allows tourists to stay for 90 days – but for people re-entering the country they live in, this plainly isn’t good enough. This is doubly important for those providing cross-border services, regardless of whether their commute is from Copenhagen to Malmö (where valid ID needs to be presented) or Donegal to Derry.

Or say you’re living in Italy, you’re a British citizen, but your partner isn’t. At some point after 1 November, you might need to return to the UK to look after one of your parents – but your partner earns less than the immigrant salary threshold of £30,000. Suddenly, you’re expected to choose between two sides of your family – what do you do?

Despite the misconception that Brits abroad tend to be pensioners on the Costa del Sol, four-fifths of UK citizens living in the EU are of working age or younger. However, those who do claim a British state pension have seen its value decline by almost 20 per cent since the referendum, and a no-deal Brexit would see it fall even further. They will have it uprated until 2020, but reciprocity will dictate what happens thereafter.

That European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) cards would no longer be valid, and the likely return of data roaming charges, are some of the more prosaic difficulties for those only semi-permanently in the EU27.

Most professional qualifications from the UK will continue to be recognised – although those working as lawyers or in financial services may be affected.

Like many in the UK, Brits living in other EU countries have been exhausted by Brexit and are deciding to bury their heads in the sand until 1 November. Almost everyone I speak to, however, mentions someone they know who has moved back to the UK due to the uncertainty. Some were concerned that Brexit would affect those living in non-EU countries, but the UK has agreed to protect citizens’ rights with the European Economic Area (EEA) European Free Trade Association (Efta) states (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) in the event of no deal – and a similar agreement has been signed with Switzerland.

Several people I speak to have been given assurances by their employers or host governments, but aren’t sure whether these guarantees are accurate, hopeful or outdated. The impact of leaving without a deal could be very different from that of ratifying the withdrawal agreement, after all.

Both British in Europe and the3million are united in calling for the citizens’ rights of the 5 million to be ring-fenced, even in the event of no deal. They lament that the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” has led to their liminal state.

For those living in the EU27, the consequences of a referendum – in which over 700,000 British citizens living overseas were denied a vote – look darker than ever.

> This piece is from our Know Your No Deal series on the different ways a no-deal Brexit will impact the UK

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