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Life Beyond Brexit: Rights for UK Citizens in the European Union

As negotiators debate the post-Brexit futures of approximately 3 million European Union nationals living in the United Kingdom and one million British citizens resident on the continent, it is important to understand the challenges these mobile citizens could face in terms of future legal status as well as access to the labour market, social security and health care.

A new Migration Policy Institute Europe report, Safe or sorry? Prospects for Britons in the European Union after Brexit, examines the issues UK citizens in Europe will inevitably face regardless of how the ongoing Brexit negotiations over citizens’ rights are concluded.

Although the stereotype of pensioners retiring in the sun has captured media attention, the report reveals that Britons residing in Europe are a much more diverse group — spanning workers and business owners, students, lifestyle migrants, retirees and children. The characteristics of these ‘Brexpats’ in terms of age, income levels and economic statuses vary by country, complicating negotiations as individual EU member states have widely divergent interests in the future of their UK residents. In Germany, for example, most UK nationals are highly educated and appear to have moved for work. By contrast most Britons in Spain are lifestyle migrants, with a significant proportion economically inactive.

However the negotiations over citizens’ rights are concluded, enduring issues are likely to remain in three key areas: Legal status, access to the labour market, social security and health care.

‘Regardless of what happens with the deal on citizens’ rights, there is likely to be a massive increase in UK nationals who find themselves in legal limbo, either de facto unauthorised, waiting to have their residence application processed or in the process of appealing an unfavourable decision about their status’ says the report.

Britons who have split their time between two countries or have not maintained address or financial records would have particular difficulty providing the documentation to qualify for continued residence, as would those who have been in the country less than five years. If national and EU laws default to treating these Britons as non-EU migrants, even those who have lived in a country for five years or more could be required to prove their income status and fulfil integration requirements, including language tests.

The report also examines post-Brexit hurdles for mobile UK citizens in other areas, among them:

  • As third-country nationals, Britons would lose their current employment privileges, such as the right to enter any job without a prospective employer having to first undergo the labour market tests some EU member states impose.
  • While access to social security is likely to be a priority of any future agreement, existing grey areas in EU law could make agreeing on who is entitled to which benefits difficult. Such decisions are often governed by ill-defined terms such as ‘continual residence’, ‘habitual residence’ or ‘sufficient resources’.
  • The ability of Britons to access national health-care systems after Brexit is likely to depend heavily on how long they have been in a country and whether their status has been regularised. Moreover, most member states consider holding comprehensive insurance a precondition of continued legal status, and lack of it, going back over the period of residence, could become a reason for rejecting residence applications from certain economically inactive groups of UK nationals.

For the UK government, the potential proliferation of categories of Britons with different entitlements vis-à-vis the European Union could prove problematic the report says. As early evidence emerges of an increase in UK nationals applying for EU citizenship and the likelihood that a sizeable portion of those abroad will retain free-movement rights in some form, this risks creating a class of super-mobile UK nationals and a second tier with much more limited rights.

‘As a result, Brexit could initiate seismic changes in how UK nationals understand their citizenship and common identity, how cohesive and loyal the British diaspora feel, and how Britons feel about mobility itself’, the report concludes.

MPI Europe provides authoritative research and practical policy design to governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders who seek more effective management of immigration, immigrant integration and asylum systems, as well as better outcomes for newcomers, families of immigrant background and receiving communities throughout Europe. MPI Europe also provides a forum for the exchange of information on migration and immigrant integration practices within the European Union and Europe more generally.