Thousands of Britons living in Europe facing urgent race to keep their rights

It is estimated there are tens of thousands of British nationals in some EU Member States who have yet to apply for post-Brexit residence.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

02 Jul 2021

Much has been said and written about the fall-out from the UK’s departure from the EU, mostly on issues about Ireland and trade, including the good old British banger (sausage).

But relatively little has been said about the estimated 1.5 million Brits who live and work on mainland Europe, many said to be at risk of losing their rights unless they apply for post-Brexit residence.

Campaigners have voiced concern about the plight of British citizens who must now register to qualify for public services and even the right to remain in their ‘adopted’ country.

It is estimated there are tens of thousands of British nationals in some EU Member States who have yet to apply for post-Brexit residence.

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, UK citizens who were legally resident in one of the EU’s 27 member states at the end of the transition period on 31 December last year are eligible for permanent residence, protecting their basic rights.

Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy are among 14 Member States that chose systems that automatically confer a new post-Brexit residence status on legally resident Britons, with no risk of losing rights even if any administrative deadline is missed.

“The consequences are serious in Member States where there is a deadline for people to apply for their new status” Professor Michaela Benson

But the situation is radically different in the remaining 13 EU countries who operate ‘constitutive’ systems under which UK nationals must formally apply for their new residence status.

Michaela Benson is Professor of Public Sociology at Lancaster University in the UK and a member of New Europeans, a campaign group that champions the rights of both British citizens in Europe and also EU citizens in the UK.

Commenting in an article posted recently on the UK in a Changing Europe website, Prof. Benson said that there are people at risk of “falling through the gaps” She said, “These are the most marginal and vulnerable within the population of British citizens living in the EU, including those living on low incomes, the homeless, those with disabilities, chronic conditions, or serious health issues.”

She added, “But we should also remember that within any population there are those who are not in a position to advocate for themselves for a range of reasons, including mental incapacity but also children in alternative care, estranged from their (British) parents and likely with inadequate documentation.

These populations are, by definition, hidden populations. We do not know who or where they are. Even in countries where they had registration procedures for EU citizens, there will be a small proportion of people who never registered and are therefore below the radar. In countries where registration was more patchy or absent (as in France), the numbers of people of such people will likely be higher.”

She also voiced concerns over the impact of missing registration deadlines, saying, “The consequences are serious in Member States where there is a deadline for people to apply for their new status.”

“The UK government’s intransigence in refusing to delay or abolish the 30 June deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status in the UK has not helped the position of British citizens in the EU” New Europeans’ Roger Casale

“Put simply, those failing to apply by the deadline... will not be granted the status permitted by the Withdrawal Agreement.”

“Of course, Member States are obliged to consider late applications if there are reasonable grounds for these having been submitted late. But at present, clear guidance about what should be considered as reasonable grounds has not been issued.”

Roger Casale, a former UK Labour MP who founded New Europeans, said, “For many British citizens living in the EU, life will become even more complicated if they fail to secure their residency status before the 30 June deadline.”

“The UK government’s intransigence in refusing to delay or abolish the 30 June deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status in the UK has not helped the position of British citizens in the EU.”

Britons who do not have a right of residence will be able to stay for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. Theoretically, a person who overstays could be deported but there are also a series of sanctions available, including fines and refusal to allow a return within three years.

According to a report by the Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights, which outlines what each Member State has done to help Britons in Europe with registration, says Spain – home to tens of thousands of Brits - has implemented a “robust communication campaign”, the goal being “to inform citizens, not only about residence rights but also about other related issues, such as travelling or voting rights, tourism and study programmes.”

The report says the Belgian authorities have provided training to local municipalities, “the first point of contact in Belgium for UK nationals,” including vulnerable groups, and “are making sure that they are well informed about the new procedures in place.”

The process in France for the residence application, the deadline for which has been extended until 30 Sept “has been designed in order to avoid the necessity to come to the prefecture, which will be helpful for elderly people, those residing far away or physically disabled.”

Daniel Sheridan Ferrie, European Commission spokesperson for EU-UK negotiations, notes, “We have been doing a lot to ensure that EU citizens living in the UK are aware of the deadline and are taking the necessary steps to apply for settled status.

“As for UK citizens living in the EU, it is up to each Member State to ensure that UK citizens complete any necessary administrative steps before the deadline.”

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