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What would a no-deal Brexit mean for EU and UK citizens’ rights?

What would a no-deal Brexit mean for EU and UK citizens’ rights?
Copyright REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Copyright REUTERS/Hannah McKay
By Alasdair Sandford
Published on Updated
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EU nationals in the UK and Britons in Europe have been given reassurances – but campaigners say rights will disappear and questions remain unanswered.


This article has been updated following the UK general election in December 2019.

The resounding victory for Boris Johnson's Conservative Party at the December 12 election makes it highly unlikely that the UK will leave the European Union without a divorce agreement in place.

If the UK departs with a ratified exit deal, the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement will have the force of an international treaty. These include safeguards for citizens' rights – those of EU nationals living in the UK, and Britons on the continent. Preparations for "no deal" arrangements concerning citizens' rights as detailed below would become obsolete.

Separately, another "no deal" situation could loom in 2020 even if Brexit happens with an approved divorce deal, but this concerns trade and the future UK-EU relationship – and is not to be confused with the binding exit terms.

To take effect, the revised UK-EU deal struck in October 2019 needs the approval of the British parliament – where the ruling Tories' 80-seat majority in the House of Commons should assure safe passage.

It also needs ratification by the European Parliament. Although there have been warnings that citizens' rights safeguards need beefing up, MEPS are thought unlikely to reject the agreement as to do so would risk a damaging "no deal" Brexit.

If, for any reason, the UK leaves the EU without a ratified divorce deal, existing legal arrangements would abruptly cease to apply and many aspects of everyday life would be affected. This article considers measures put in place for this scenario.

2019: no-deal preparations stepped up

Several European countries have moved to shore up the rights of British residents living in the EU, in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit. It follows an appeal by the EU for member states to take a “generous approach”, should the UK leave the bloc without an agreement.

The British government has also given assurances about the rights of EU nationals living in the UK in such a scenario. But many details on both sides are left up in the air and campaigners have described the situation as “unacceptable”.

There was further consternation when the UK government announced that freedom of movement would end on the day the country left the EU. It was forced to back down when faced with a possible legal challenge. However, new arrivals to the UK from the EU will lose the right to permanent residence.

The EU has agreed to delay Brexit until January 31, 2020, amid deadlock in the UK over the path ahead.

The absence of a ratified divorce deal has prolonged uncertainty for millions of people. Boris Johnson's revised deal with the EU keeps the provisions on citizens' rights (pages 17-65) that were included in Theresa May's agreement. The accord grants continued residency and social security rights, and secures freedom of movement during the planned transition period. However, all this depends on the deal being ratified.

There has been no agreement on how to safeguard the rights of citizens, should the UK leave the EU without an exit deal. The UK has called for rights set out in the negotiated accord to be applied at European level, despite its rejection of the deal as a whole. The EU's response is that they cannot be separated for practical reasons, and that in a no-deal scenario citizens' rights would be a matter for individual nations.

As things stand, set out below is the situation for EU nationals in the UK and Britons on the continent, should Brexit occur without an approved exit deal.

What 'no deal' means for over 3 million EU citizens in the UK

Upon taking office, the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to "repeat unequivocally" the government's guarantee to more than three million EU citizens already living in the UK. However, there was scorn when it was quickly confirmed that no new legislation was planned.

Originally drawn up during Theresa May's time in office, the British government’s Policy Paper on Citizens’ Rights set out to “remove any ambiguity”: EU citizens and their family members living in the UK will be “welcome to stay” and “able to work, study, and access benefits and services” on the same basis as now, in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The UK will continue with its planned Settlement Scheme for EU nationals, as under the Withdrawal Agreement – including a five-year period to leave and then return.

But those who qualify will have to be resident in the country "by exit day", which has been reset to 31 January 2020 after EU leaders granted the UK a third Brexit delay. That date is much sooner than the 31 December 2020 deadline outlined in the exit deal, marking the end of the proposed transition period.


The cut-off date for applications is also brought forward by six months: provided they are resident by exit day, EU citizens must apply for settled status by the end of 2020. They can be joined by existing close family members – but a cut-off date of 29 March 2022 has been brought in.

Entitlements to a range of benefits and services will continue on the same terms as now – although these may vary in the UK’s devolved nations and will be subject to future changes applying to UK nationals.

  • There was concern when the Johnson government said in August there would be an immediate end to free movement on Brexit day. Campaign groups feared confusion in distinguishing between EU citizens arriving in the UK after Brexit, and those already resident. In its no-deal immigration plan, the government states that employers and landlords will not be required to distinguish between the two categories until a future immigration system is introduced in 2021.

  • Citizens' rights campaigners have warned that EU27 nationals may be denied permanent residence but granted only a temporary right to stay, because of a difference between "pre-settled status" and "settled status".

  • The European Parliament's Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt and citizens' campaigners have warned that rights are being “watered down” under the government’s no-deal plan, calling for arrangements set out in the exit deal to be ring-fenced.

  • The3million group, which lobbies for the rights of EU nationals in the UK, says it isn’t clear what happens to some people who leave the UK temporarily. Social security provisions don’t go far enough, while family reunion rights are restrictive. EU nationals would be vulnerable to discrimination from employers and landlords.

  • The British government says Irish citizens in the UK, as part of the Common Travel Area (CTA), will be able to remain as now and no action is needed to protect their status.

  • A report from the British parliament's human rights committee published on March 26 warned that EU nationals living in Britain could be refused access to UK benefits after Brexit, for example, social security payments and council housing. The EU Withdrawal Bill, it warns, "will remove all EU free movement of persons' rights, without addressing the rights of those who currently benefit from rights of free movement of persons under EU law, or social security rights". This could impact EU citizens who were born in the UK and have worked, resided in the UK and paid British taxes "their whole lives", the report warns, and could leave them in a situation of "precarity as to their futures, including housing, social security and property rights."

Read more:

EU citizens in Scotland: 'Living here makes me feel safe and at home'

How the Brexit deal affects EU citizens in the UK – but only if it’s ratified


EU settlement scheme in the UK: what is it and how does it work?

EU citizens coming to the UK after a no-deal Brexit

On September 4 Boris Johnson's government announced a plan to allow EU citizens and close family members to move to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit on October 31. As long as they move before the end of 2020, they will be able to obtain three years' temporary leave to remain. More details were outlined the following day.

There had been confusion and anger after the government said in August that "freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU". It backed down after lawyers and policy experts warned that an abrupt end to free movement would be impossible to implement and might be challenged in the courts.

The government's plan says EU citizens will be able to come to the UK for "visits or short trips" – but can apply for three-year residence if they want to stay beyond the end of 2020.

On 25 July 2019, in his first speech to parliament as prime minister, Boris Johnson said "our immigration system must change" and that he would order an overhaul, and would deliver on promises to introduce "an Australian-style points-based system" based on skills. In early September the Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel commissioned a review with the aim of implementing such a system.


For the moment, the government's plans are in line with those of the previous administration under Theresa May. The former leader said in a statement on January 28 that her government would seek to end free movement as soon as possible. It followed plans set out in a government white paper in December 2018 for a future skills-based immigration system.

Read more: UK scraps plan to end freedom of movement immediately after Brexit

What 'no deal' means for over 1 million Britons living in Europe

The European Commission claims it is “putting citizens’ rights first” in its Contingency Action Plan for a no deal scenario. But the level of detail in the document’s 12 pages is inevitably bare compared to the near 600-page Withdrawal Agreement.

It calls on EU countries to be “generous” and “pragmatic” in granting temporary residence to UK citizens already living in the bloc on exit day. UK nationals should be exempt from visa requirements.

But at European level there are no guarantees. On social security, the Commission urges member states to “take all possible steps to ensure legal certainty” and protect previously existing rights.


The citizens campaign group British in Europe has slammed what it calls a “barebones proposal” that means UK nationals “will have to adjust to life as third-country nationals overnight once all their EU rights have been stripped from them”.

In a Twitter thread, it says rights outlined in the withdrawal agreement "would go up in smoke" and would depend on the goodwill and laws of host countries. Healthcare for pensioners and some others would be threatened, as would social security arrangements which can only be coordinated at EU level. The end of free movement, it adds, threatens the livelihoods of people who work in more than one country.

The UK government's website contains information for UK nationals under no-deal. It gives advice on a range of matters including residency, work and travel, family members, healthcare, pensions, tax and driving licences.

The Johnson government has said it will cover healthcare costs for six months for 180,000 British nationals living in the EU – including pensioners and students, those on disability benefits and posted workers – in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Theresa May's government had pledged to cover healthcare costs for up to a year.

In several EU countries, Britons are advised to swap UK driving licences for the equivalent document in their country of residence.


Read more:

Brexit delay prolongs 'crippling' limbo for EU and UK expats

UK citizens living in EU 'very worried' about end of free movement in no-deal Brexit

UK announces €3.3 million to help British nationals in EU prepare for Brexit

UK residents' rights in each EU country


Here is an outline of how EU nations plan to treat UK residents in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as of August 2019. In several cases, countries stress that arrangements for Britons are based on reciprocity – and depend on Britain's treatment of their own citizens living in the UK.

  • Spain has the largest community of British migrants in the EU, estimated to be at least 300,000. After Brexit, UK nationals intending to live in Spain for more than three months must register. Concerning a possible no-deal, before the agreement to delay Brexit the government brought in a decree guaranteeing new permanent residency papers for Britons legally resident by the exit date. It extends rights to cover employment, social security, healthcare and education. The government says the aim is to minimise disruption, including for those who cross into Gibraltar for work. The UK ambassador to Spain welcomed the measures. The Spanish government's website has a section in English on Brexit for citizens. The section on living in Spain on the UK government website says Britons living there will be considered legally resident for 21 months after Brexit, even if they have no residency document.

Read more: 'The UK has forgotten us': Britons hold anti-Brexit protest in Malaga

  • France has plans for a no-deal Brexit: a bill passed by the National Assembly was followed up by a government decree. From the date the UK leaves the EU, Britons living in France will have six months to apply for a residence card. A one-year transitional period will enable people to enjoy existing rights over residence, work and benefits. Access to healthcare will be the same for two years after Brexit. The UK residents group Remain in France has more no-deal guidance. See also the UK government website. France has stressed that it will apply these conditions if the UK does the same for French nationals living in Britain.

Read more:

France to launch website for Britons to apply for residence permits

British expats in French village fear prospect of a no-deal Brexit


'Without freedom of movement we'll lose half our income'

  • Germany has drawn up a draft law to be applied in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It aims to give all Britons and their families living in Germany residence permits. People will have to apply by the end of a transition period: the interior ministry's FAQ says this will last for nine months. A registration process is in operation. See the German section on the UK government website.

  • The Netherlands has plans for a no-deal transition scheme to run until 30 June 2020, during which British residents will retain existing rights. UK nationals should be sent a letter before Brexit day, which will serve as a temporary residence document. They will then be contacted and invited to apply online for a new national residence permit by 1 April 2020. See the UK government website for more.

Read more: 'I'll have to choose between my parents or my husband'

  • Belgium has approved temporary measures safeguarding existing residency and working rights for UK residents and their families until 31 December 2020. Thereafter, no-deal arrangements have yet to be drawn up. The authorities in Flanders and Wallonia have passed separate decrees.

  • Italy has passed legislation to apply under no-deal. UK nationals will need to get a new non-EU residence permit before 31 December 2020, and the British Embassy in Rome advises UK citizens to apply before the scheduled Brexit date of October 31. The UK government website has more information. So too does the British in Italy group, which says the new law leaves much uncertainty.

  • Cyprus says it wants to protect existing residence rights for Britons and their families. A government statement on no-deal from early 2019 says residence documents will continue to be valid until 31 December 2020, and intends to implement unilaterally the provisions on citizens' rights set out in the Brexit withdrawal agreement, to prevent UK residents from being treated as other non-EU nationals.

  • Sweden has adopted a no-deal plan to allow Britons and their relatives to continue living, studying and working without residence or work permits until March 29, 2020. People wishing to travel abroad during this post-Brexit period may need proof of this exemption to normal rules for non-EU citizens. The Swedish Migration Agency has more information in English. The Swedish government website specifies that UK residents will still have access to social security, healthcare and education. See also the UK government website.

  • Denmark has passed a law establishing a temporary transitional scheme for citizens in a no-deal scenario. British nationals and their family members legally resident on Brexit day will continue to enjoy all existing rights under EU free movement rules. People are encouraged to apply for an EU registration certificate or residence card before the withdrawal date. The Danish immigration ministry and foreign affairs ministry websites, as well as the UK government site, have more detail.

  • The Czech Republic says on its government website that UK citizens in the event of no-deal will be governed by a Brexit law, which preserves existing rights (except on healthcare) during a transition period until the end of 2020. Existing residents need to apply for a residence permit by the Brexit date. The British government website has more information, as does the Czech interior ministry.

  • Poland has passed a law to give Britons living in the country legal status until December 31, 2020. They must have documents proving their right to stay by the day before Brexit day. Before the end of 2020 UK citizens wishing to stay must apply for a residence permit, which will be temporary or permanent depending on circumstances. PWC Poland has a no-deal summary.

  • Austria says Britons living there must apply for a residence permit within six months of the UK's departure from the EU. They will continue to be legally resident and be able to work until a decision is made. Residence permits may be temporary or permanent. More information is available on the Austrian government and UK government websites.

  • Portugal has secured residency and healthcare rights for UK residents until the end of 2020, in the event of no-deal. But only Britons already resident on Brexit day would be guaranteed a legal right to stay permanently. They would have until 31 December 2020 to apply for a registration certificate, and exchange UK driving licences for Portuguese equivalents by this date to avoid having to take a driving test. Professional qualifications would continue to be recognised, UK visitors would not need visas and would be able to use "fast-track" lanes at airports. The UK government website has more information, as does Blevins Franks and this Portuguese government advice sheet. Portugal runs a Golden Visa programme for foreigners who can invest at least €350,000.

  • Ireland’s government, like its British counterpart, has made it clear that British and Irish citizens can move freely and reside in each other’s countries with reciprocal rights – under the CTA which is not dependent on EU membership.

  • All other EU countries have produced information in English on no-deal consequences for UK residents: Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Most countries, but not all, plan transition periods. The most generous country is Malta which guarantees residency rights for 10 years.

Read more:How the Brexit deal impacts Britons living in the EU – but only if it’s ratified

Calls to 'ring-fence' citizens' rights in a no-deal Brexit

In late February the British House of Commons passed unopposed an amendment by Conservative MP Alberto Costa – backed by citizens campaign groups and MPs across the political spectrum – calling for rights contained in the negotiated agreement to be ring-fenced even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The UK's Brexit minister Steve Barclay asked the European Union for its "formal views" on the proposal.

In a reply dated March 25, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that the best way to safeguard citizens' rights would be to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. He added that it would be "far from straightforward" to identify the provisions in need of ring-fencing in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and how they would be enforced. However, he concluded with a reassurance that British nationals living in the EU would not be "left in the dark".


Barclay followed up with another letter in June, calling for citizens' rights as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement to be ring-fenced in a no-deal scenario, to reinforce protection in areas such as healthcare and pensions. Barnier replied the following day, repeating the EU's stance – if the whole deal was not passed, citizens' rights would be up to individual countries. He pointed out that matters affecting citizens were covered in several parts of the agreement, so isolating one particular section would not guarantee all their rights.

Discussions continued between London and Brussels, while the campaign group British in Europe has given evidence to a House of Commons select committee.

Read more: Can a separate deal guarantee the rights of UK and EU citizens post-Brexit?

Britons returning to live in the UK from the EU

The UK government says in its policy paper that British nationals returning to live in the UK in a no-deal scenario would have the same access to healthcare as Britons already living there, and would be able to register to vote.

It offers no guarantees over the right to bring in EU and non-EU citizen family members, simply promising more details in due course. This issue is a major concern for some Britons living on the continent.


The government says it is also looking at ways to facilitate access to benefits and services for Britons returning to live in the UK from the EU.

Business and leisure travel

The UK and EU have agreed that their citizens will be allowed to travel visa-free in each other's territory for business and leisure visits - not including a more general right to work beyond attending meetings and carrying out tasks such as job interviews or signing deals. Visits would be limited to 90 days, twice a year.

Losing control

Regardless of any good intentions, a no-deal Brexit would mean citizens’ rights would no longer be protected at European level and instead be dealt with by individual nations.

Both the EU and the UK government acknowledge their loss of influence. “EU citizens residing in the United Kingdom would no longer be protected by the EU rules on free movement”, says the European Commission’s document. “The UK cannot act unilaterally to protect the rights of UK nationals in the EU,” reads the British government’s paper.

Instead, and in particular over matters such as healthcare, social security and pensions, there are calls for reciprocal arrangements to be drawn up – but few details.


Amid the UK’s parliamentary impasse over Brexit, the issue of citizens’ rights has been somewhat eclipsed as the public debate focuses on the economic consequences of a potential “no deal”.

The ongoing uncertainty leaves many questions unanswered for Europeans living in the UK and Britons on the continent, compounding the anxiety many have felt over their future rights and legal status since the British referendum.

With or without a deal, people moving between the EU and the UK in the future are likely to find arrangements much more restrictive than they are now.

Read more:

No-deal Brexit: everything you need to know


Brexit Guide: Where are we now?

What's in the Brexit deal and why was it voted down by MPs?

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