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

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What would a no-deal Brexit mean for citizens’ rights?
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REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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Several European countries have moved to shore up the rights of British residents in the event of a “no deal” Brexit, as the March deadline looms. 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 Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between London and Brussels 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 – and strong opposition in the UK parliament means its survival is in serious doubt.

Citizens’ rights in the event of “no deal” were addressed by both the European Commission and the British government when they published their respective plans in December.

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 29 March 2019, its scheduled departure date from the EU – much sooner than the 31 December 2020 deadline outlined in the exit deal, the date 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 29 March 2019, 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.
  • Austria says it plans to create an exception to its ban on dual citizenship for its nationals living in the UK.

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

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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”.

The British 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.

  • Spain has the largest community of British migrants in the EU. Both the Spanish government and British embassy urge Britons living there to register with the Spanish authorities. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has promised emergency measures by early February to guarantee Britons existing rights in a no-deal scenario – as long as Spaniards get the same treatment in Britain. Madrid and London have reportedly been working on a bilateral treaty to preserve local voting rights for Britons post-Brexit.
  • In France the National Assembly has passed a bill on plans for a no-deal Brexit. It gives the French government powers to issue decrees to protect Britons living and working in France – and even grant them more favourable status than those from third countries, as long as the UK acts in similar fashion. The campaign group Remain in France estimates that UK nationals in France will probably be given a grace period to conform to new rules.
  • 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 drawn up proposals to protect the rights of British citizens living in the country if there's no deal. The Portuguese government and the British embassy are running 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.

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

Losing control

Despite the good intentions on all sides, 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 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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