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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?
REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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This article has been updated to take account of new developments.

Several European countries have moved to shore up the rights of British residents 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. However, many details on both sides are left up in the air and campaigners have described the situation as “unacceptable”.

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

The rejection by UK MPs of the Withdrawal Agreement has cast further uncertainty for millions of people. Negotiated between London and Brussels, it 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.

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

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

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

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

The British government’s Policy Paper on Citizens’ Rights sets 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 October 2019 after EU leaders granted the UK a second 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.

  • 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:How the Brexit deal will affect EU citizens in the UK – if it’s ratified

READ: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

The British government said in a statement on January 28 that in these circumstances it would seek to end free movement as soon as possible.

Citizens from the European Economic Area (EEA) and family members, including Swiss citizens, would be able to enter the UK to visit, work or study as they do now, for a transitional period.

But those wanting to stay longer than three months would have to apply for and receive permission to remain, which would be valid for another three years. Those wishing to stay beyond that would have to apply under a new immigration system to begin from 2021.

READ:UK parliament votes in favour of post-Brexit immigration bill

READ: What are the UK's post-Brexit immigration plans?

READ: More than half of UK firms fear hit from post-Brexit immigration plan – survey

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. On healthcare it has said that Britons may find their access to healthcare in the EU changes after 29 March if there's no deal.

  • Spain has the largest community of British migrants in the EU, estimated to be at least 300,000. On March 1, before the agreement to delay Brexit, the government brought in a decree guaranteeing new permanent residency papers for Britons legally resident on March 29. 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. By the end of 2020 Britons will need to have applied for a new foreigner identity card. The UK ambassador to Spain has welcomed the measures. The Spanish government's website has a section in English on Brexit.

  • In France the National Assembly has passed a bill on plans for a no-deal Brexit, which was followed up by a government decree. Britons living in France will have one year to get a residence permit – and will enjoy the same rights over residence, work and benefits during this period. Access to healthcare will be the same for two years after Brexit. France has stressed that it will apply these conditions if the UK does the same for French nationals living in Britain.

  • Germany’s interior ministry says Britons there will retain residence rights for three months, with extensions possible, after a no-deal Brexit. But they will need to apply for residency by 30 June 2019. Berlin has already begun a registration process.

  • The Netherlands has also told resident Britons that after a no-deal Brexit they can carry on living, working and studying in the country. UK nationals should be sent a letter before Brexit day, which will serve as a temporary residence document. During a 15-month transition period they will then be invited to apply for a new permit.

  • Italy’s foreign affairs ministry has also said that British residents can continue living and working there, even with no-deal. A transition period will follow. The group British in Italy urges people to obtain or apply for residence status by Brexit day.

  • Sweden is working on a plan to allow Britons there to “live as before” if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement. A Swedish government website specifies that this should include access to social security, healthcare and education.

  • Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has tweeted to say "of course" Britons can stay if there's no deal, and his government is preparing legislation.

  • The Czech Republic has drawn up no-deal plans for a transition period until the end of 2020, during which British nationals living and working there on Brexit day will be treated like EU citizens. This is dependent on the rights of Czech citizens in Britain being guaranteed in turn.

  • Poland is drafting a similar law to give Britons living in the country a year without having to change their status. Those who have been in the country for over five years will be offered permanent residency including the right to work. UK citizens who have been in Poland for under five years will get a three-year temporary residence permit.

  • Austria – after initially appearing to take a tougher stance – has also said the rights of resident Britons will be protected. The Europe minister has said legislation is being drawn up to ensure that UK nationals who have lived and worked in the country up until the withdrawal date will continue to enjoy those rights.

  • Portugal has announced contingency measures to protect the rights of British citizens living in the country if there's no deal. UK driving licences and academic qualifications would still be recognised. Extra consular offices would support British expats. UK visitors would not need visas and would be able to use "fast-track" lanes at airports. The Portuguese government and the British embassy have run awareness campaigns to get Britons to register before March 29.

  • 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.

READ:How the Brexit deal will impact Britons living in the EU – if it’s ratified

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.


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