Brits in Denmark: Brexit could spell ‘disaster’

On June 23rd this year, the UK will become the first EU country to hold a referendum on whether to remain in the union. The Local spoke to four British citizens living in Denmark about their thoughts on the potential British EU exit - and what it might mean for them as European free movers.

Brits in Denmark: Brexit could spell ‘disaster’
Photo: Jeff Djevdet/Speed Property Buyers

Phillip Hay, 51. Chef. Originally from Hertfordshire. In Denmark since 1997.

How do you think Denmark will react if the UK leaves?

Denmark is watching, like other countries. I’m sure it will want to renegotiate, for example, welfare to Eastern European nationals. The Danes support Britain and are a bit Eurosceptic themselves. Maybe they’ll have their own referendum. Scepticism and nationalism rear their ugly heads when times are hard, but like with the UK, there’s no point in Denmark throwing the baby out with the bath water. Whatever happens though, I won’t go back. I love the lifestyle and the quality of life in Denmark and I have my partner and my kids here – that’s not going to change, whatever else does.

What concerns you about the potential exit?

It would be a disaster for European business, for our relationship with the rest of the EU. I don’t use the word ‘disaster’ lightly. I think it would be a huge own-goal. I know we pay a lot to be part of it but we get a lot back, we get modernisation, the lifestyle – people moan about rules that govern our pesticides and industry, for example, but it gives us a better lifestyle which benefits us all.

Why do you think so many Brits want to leave the EU?

I know there are problems. There should be more openness, more clarity. A lot of money is spent and we don’t know where it goes. But if we left, there could be retribution [from the EU], obstacles could be put up. And I’d accept that. You can’t sit at the table and eat if you’re not part of the family. In Denmark, there’s welfare in place to support me. Touch wood, I’ve never needed it, but I don’t see why we should deny other people that.

You’re referring to the argument that leaving the EU will save the UK money on social benefits payments to non-British EU nationals?

Yes, it works both ways. There are Brits on welfare here. We can’t complain about other nationalities doing it in the UK. People also want to feel like they’re limiting immigration. They’re annoyed about child benefits [being sent to other EU countries]. But we’re not unique in that respect. There’s just not a lot of compassion – but then again I’m an old socialist, so I would say that.

Mark Sedgwick, 55. Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, Aarhus University. Originally from London. In Denmark since 2007.

Do you think Britain will leave the EU?

I think it will leave. Every time we’ve had a referendum involving the EU anywhere across Europe, the vote has gone towards nationalists. The Danish vote [on legal exemption from intrastate policing, ed.] in December and the Swiss minaret vote [in 2009] are examples of this. There are dozens of precedents. So if I was a betting man, that’s where I’d put my money.

Journalists and others tend to only talk to people who think about these issues in the same way as them. The so-called elites have lost touch with the population and the population doesn’t like it – so they will vote to reject the elites. People aren’t voting against free trade and I doubt they are particularly against regulation. They are certainly against immigration. I don’t know whether they’re voting against Pakistanis and accidentally rejecting the Poles, though.

How do you see the potential Brexit affecting Brits in Denmark?

Even as an EU citizen you don’t have the right to just wander in and live here. Non-EU and EU citizens have to basically follow the same rules – if you’ve got a contract of employment, you’re in. After five years, you’ve got residency. So for me, it wouldn’t have made any difference when I moved here [to take up a position at Aarhus University, ed.] and it wouldn’t make any difference now.

What about the Danish – and European – economy?

Britain will want to be part of the EEC but not the EU, so the question is what position the EU will take – they could make life as difficult as possible to discourage others, meaning Britain wouldn’t get EEC status. But I think this would be too disruptive. I think in the end, self-interest will mean they have to negotiate. So the question is how much difference will it really make? The EU is already ‘multi-speed’ – with some countries and not others in Schengen, in the Euro, in the EEC or EU. Britain leaving would be an extension of that.

Will you apply for Danish citizenship if Britain leaves?

I also have an Irish passport so no, but otherwise I would. Being an EU citizen in some other countries does give you other advantages – for example, if I wanted to send my children to university in the Netherlands, it makes enormous differences to the fees you pay.

Katie Benson, 31. Freelance writer. Originally from London. In Denmark since 2014.

Do you think Britain will actually leave the EU and why?

My hope is that there are enough sensible people in Britain to realise that we're better off as part of the EU, so I think it's unlikely that we will leave. I agree that the EU has plenty of flaws and needs reforming, but I think we're better off trying to effect change from the inside, rather than watching from the sidelines as everything falls apart.

In the event of Brexit, how do you think UK-Denmark relations might be affected?

I suspect that a Brexit would lead to closer ties between the UK and Denmark, as I get the impression that many Danes are also interested in leaving the EU and might call for their country to follow suit. The UK could become a poster child for going it alone.

How might it affect you as a Brit in DK? What concerns you most?

The biggest impact for me would be on my status as a resident. I imagine I'd have to apply for some sort of visa to live and work here, and that's a huge shame as I am naturally a strong supporter of freedom of movement. My largest concern about a Brexit is that I could easily see the current government rolling back EU regulations that affect environmental and agricultural policies. I don't want to see the UK sacrifice environmental progress for the sake of short-term economic gains.

If Britain does leave, would you apply for Danish citizenship?

Even though I have my ups and downs with how our country is run, I’m still proud to be British. I think I'd only apply for dual citizenship if it became a legal requirement for owning my home, as I'd like to think that I'll stay in Denmark for a few more years and it's lovely not having to spend a fortune on rent like I did in London.

Matthew Travers, 37. Teacher. Originally from Huddersfield. In Denmark since 2010.

How do you think Brexit would affect Denmark?

The only obvious thing to say is that it will impact negatively on business. A lot of British expats in Denmark are highly educated – they will no longer be vouchsafed by regulation. So it might be harder to find high level skilled workers, but only with regard to Brits. So perhaps that makes it less important unless you need native speakers for example, or financial sector workers.

How might it affect you?

I feel relatively safe. As a native English speaker teaching in an international school I think they’ll still want to keep me around, so even though I potentially won’t be protected by social welfare, hopefully I’ll be okay. I’ve never had to claim it yet. I want that on record!

How about Denmark-based Brits in general?

It depends on what you’re after. If you want to be in Denmark purely for the lifestyle, then you might have reason to be concerned with regard to residence permits. I’m here because the work’s here and I think that’s why they’d want to keep me, even if Britain flies off into space. But people can do entire degrees in other EU countries at ‘EU rates’ – to lose that would be really sad for British people.

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”