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Life after Brexit: What will change for people in 2021 when the UK is free of EU rules?

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By Alasdair Sandford
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Passengers wait to board the international high-speed Eurostar train to Paris at St Pancras International railway station in London, on February 1, 2020.
Passengers wait to board the international high-speed Eurostar train to Paris at St Pancras International railway station in London, on February 1, 2020.   -   Copyright  TOLGA AKMEN / AFP
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Major changes will kick in on both sides of the English Channel in the New Year when the full effects of Brexit will be felt.

The United Kingdom officially left the European Union in January 2020, but a post-Brexit transition period has kept most existing arrangements in place. Once this expires on December 31, EU rules will cease to apply to the UK.

Most of these changes were due to happen regardless of the post-Brexit trade negotiations. Some issues have been impacted by the deal struck between London and Brussels last week.

Here, in the first of a two-part series, we look at the impact on people, focusing on residency, travel and exchanges between the UK and the continent.

End of free movement

Rules that will cease to apply from January 2021 include those on freedom of movement (a conditional not absolute right of EU citizens to move to other EU countries to live and work). EU citizens will no longer have the right to move to the UK to work and settle, and vice versa.

The UK will introduce a new immigration policy from January 2021, having passed new legislation. Under the planned points-based system to attract skilled workers, EU nationals will no longer have preferential treatment.

A government policy document in February 2020 said one of the aims was to end "a reliance on cheap labour from Europe".

Meanwhile, the ability of British citizens settled in one EU country to move freely to other nations within the bloc after Brexit — a right they have enjoyed up to now — was not covered in the divorce deal. As things stand, this right will end in 2021.

Residency rights

EU citizens already resident in the UK by the end of 2020 — and Britons living on the continent — have the right to remain and retain existing rights, in areas including employment and social security. This comes under the binding terms of the Brexit divorce deal.

However, residence permits will be needed in the future. There have been many complaints about how the new arrangements are working out in practice for EU nationals in the UK, especially given the absence of any physical residency document provided by the British government.

More detailed information is available on the websites of the campaign groups British in Europe, and The3million for EU nationals living in the UK.

Travel rules

The EU has warned that for UK visitors to the EU, entry is likely to be less straightforward from 2021.

In a document published by the European Commission in July, Britons were told that they will be "subject to thorough checks" at borders when entering EU countries (apart from Ireland) and the Schengen area, as they will be "treated as third-country nationals".

As a general rule, UK nationals will not need visas to stay in EU countries for up to 90 days in any 180-day period, as long as they don't work, in accordance with the Schengen Borders Code. The British government advises UK travellers to ensure their passports have at least six months' validity and are under 10 years old.

The realisation that Britons may no longer be able to spend unlimited time in second homes on the continent has sparked outrage in some quarters of the British press and on social media. But these are the rules that have always applied to non-EU citizens. More information is available on the UK government website.

Concerning the length of time UK nationals can visit France, the French Europe minister Clément Beaune said in a recent parliamentary answer that "it could be possible to find an opt-out or more flexibility" in the negotiations on the future relationship. "But I must say that our British friends have rather little appetite for negotiating on this point in the agreement," he added.

EU visitors to the UK will be able to stay for longer: they can visit as a tourist for up to six months without a visa, under immigration rules for foreign visitors exempt from short-stay visas.

They will also not be allowed to work, or to attempt to live in the UK via frequent or successive visits. Passports must be valid for the duration of the stay, and visitors may be asked for details of accommodation arrangements, financial support and return journeys.

A national identity card will be sufficient for entry into the UK until October 2021, whereupon a passport will be needed. EU residents in the UK and some other categories of travellers can enter on a national identity card until the end of 2025.

Passengers travelling between the EU and the UK may no longer be protected by EU consumer rights depending on their mode of transport, the European Commission adds.

Health insurance cards

Until now the EU's European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme has enabled UK and EU citizens to access state-provided healthcare while travelling abroad. This covers pre-existing conditions as well as childbirth and pregnancy issues. It does not guarantee free treatment, however, nor is it tantamount to travel insurance.

The post-Brexit deal paves the way for UK and EU visitors to each other's territories to continue to receive healthcare in principle, subject to conditions.

UK government advice stresses however that most Britons travelling to EU countries will need to take out travel insurance with medical cover — warning they may not get free treatment otherwise.

The British government has plans to replace the EHIC card with a new UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) and promises more details in the New Year.

After December 31, 2020, Britons visiting the continent will still be able to use their EHIC cards in EU27 countries until their expiry — but they will no longer be valid for new visits to Switzerland or the EEA countries of Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

Some categories can apply for UK-issued EHIC cards for European visits from 2021: they include UK pensioners already living in the EU, UK students already studying there, EU nationals already living in the UK, and "frontier workers" — people living in one country and working in another.

UK visitors to the EU with no EHIC or GHIC will need to apply for a Provisional Replacement Certificate (PRC).

For EU nationals visiting the UK, unless EU citizens have settled or pre-settled status, they will need private health insurance as NHS (National Health Service) treatment will no longer be free.

Driving licences and insurance

UK government advice updated on December 19 says motorists heading to the EU, Switzerland, Iceland or Lichtenstein will not need to carry an International Driving Permit (IDP), contrary to previous advice.

UK licence-holders living in an EU country will need to exchange their document for a national permit from their host country. The British government gives individual advice for each EU country.

The French government has issued its own information for UK residents and tourists driving in France.

UK drivers visiting the continent — and Ireland — from January 1, 2021, will, however, need to carry an international insurance "green card," which proves that visiting motorists have minimum compulsory insurance cover. Multiple green cards may be required for different vehicles.

Motorists based in the European Economic Area (EEA) countries do not have to carry green cards when visiting other nations in the area.

The British Insurance Brokers' Association (BIBA) has advised UK motorists they should prepare to carry green cards to prove insurance cover when visiting the continent — and Ireland — from January 1, 2021.

EU visitors to the United Kingdom will not need a UK or an international permit, the British government says. Motorists from the EU visiting the UK are advised by the UK government to "carry an insurance green card or other valid proof of insurance".

EU residents in Great Britain can still drive on their EU driving licence until they are 70, or for at least three years if they became resident aged 67 or older.

Pet passports

EU pet passports will no longer be valid after the end of the transition period for animals travelling from Great Britain into the EU and Northern Ireland.

Pets travelling from Northern Ireland into the UK or the EU can still travel on pet passports.

Instead, for entry from Britain into the EU, British pets will need an Animal Health Certificate (AHC) as the EU has granted Britain "Part 2 listed status". These will start being issued from December 22.

The UK government advises pet owners to contact their vet at least four months in advance to allow for vaccinations and other requirements.

The UK applied for "Part 1 status" — allowing animals such as cats and dogs to travel without quarantine — as the EU has granted to some other non-member countries such as Switzerland.

Roaming charges

The EU ban on additional mobile roaming charges will no longer be guaranteed for travellers between the UK and the continent, leaving British and EU operators free to slap on extra fees.

The UK government advises users to contact their operator. It adds that it has carried over an EU law capping roaming bills at €50 a month.

For EU phone users visiting the UK, it may depend on their national operators. The main UK networks have said they have no plans currently to change existing arrangements and charge extra fees.

However, it's thought this may change over time, and may depend on charges levied by countries visited.

EU Erasmus programme

The UK will be pulling out of the popular European student programme Erasmus at the end of this year.

The scheme helps young people from both the UK and the EU to study abroad. More than 17,000 UK students benefit from it annually.

Erasmus spent €14.7 billion on grants for Europeans to study abroad between 2014 and 2020, including around €1 billion on British students alone.

In March, Universities UK said the loss of access to the Erasmus scheme would "blow a hole in UK economic prospects," estimating it was worth £243 million (€269 million) annually to the economy.

European students in the UK — who numbered 143,000 in 2018-19 according to a British parliamentary study — could see fees rise sharply.

Professional qualifications

Without an agreement on future relations, there is an increased risk that the EU and UK may not recognise each other's professional qualifications.

EU guidance states that the qualifications of UK nationals in the EU will be determined by national policies of member states, irrespective of where they were obtained.

The British government says EU nationals may have to get their qualifications recognised by an appropriate UK regulator. But it says those which are of an equivalent standard to domestic qualifications will be acceptable.

Legal cases

Without an agreement, the UK will fall out of many EU judicial cooperation arrangements from January, complicating cross-border disputes.

The UK wants to join the Lugano Convention, which contains similar rules to the EU's and ensures cross-border enforcement in civil and commercial disputes.

The EU has so far not provided its consent to UK membership of the convention. The UK can rely on the Hague Convention — but this only applies to contracts which specify a choice of jurisdiction.

Asylum seekers

The EU's Dublin regulations allow EU states to return asylum seekers to an EU country they passed through, in certain circumstances.

The British government wants a new agreement, but there may be no Europe-wide legal mechanism for the UK to send asylum-seekers back to other nations after the end of the transition period.

The UK is likely to rely on bilateral treaties it has with other countries already, such as France — although the agreements do not cover people who arrive in the UK and claim asylum.

See also our second article in the Life after Brexit series, on the impact on business of the changes in post-Brexit rules.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.

This article originally published on December 16 has been updated to take account of the post-Brexit deal agreed between the EU and the UK.