OPINION: Brexit and Brits in the EU - bargaining chip or afterthought?

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OPINION: Brexit and Brits in the EU - bargaining chip or afterthought?
UK flags hang across a street near the Houses of Parliament in central London after Britons voted to leave the EU. Photo: AFP

What will happen to reciprocal arrangements between EU countries and the UK when Brits abroad are reduced to an afterthought? Laura Shields of the Liberal Democrats examines the issues faced by anxious Britons.


Last week the British government successfully quashed amendments to its EU withdrawal legislation that would have required it to take proactive action on the rights of British citizens living in the EU and EU nationals in the UK.

The government doesn’t want any constraints on its Brexit negotiations. Its logic is that if it acts unilaterally to guarantee the rights of 3.3 million EU nationals living in the UK then it won’t have any negotiating capital with the EU 27 over the status of us 1.3 million Brits living outside the UK.  Reciprocity is the buzzword and let’s not forget it.

As a British migrant living in Belgium I can understand the tactic but it’s more than a little dispiriting to be thought of as a bargaining chip. That said, I’m not even convinced the government does see us that way. Hell - bargaining chip?  Afterthought is more likely.

At the moment, most of the political discussion around the twinned fates of Brits in the EU and their EU counterparts is about the ‘right to reside’. This simplistic view does not fully capture the complexity of the practical challenges that Brits living in the EU will face once the UK leaves the EU and we lose our EU citizenship. 

I am not alone in this thought. A survey we (Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats) recently did of 5,000 Brits living in the EU reflects the complexity and anxiety many here feel. It also chimes with a recent Alternative White Paper from Brits in Europe which made detailed policy recommendations to the UK government on how it could pre-emptively protect the rights of its nationals in the EU.

Contrary to the cliché, most British ‘expats’ aren’t wealthy pensioners who’ve retired to the Riviera to live it up in the sun. We heard from a 25-year-old studying in Paris who is worried what the loss of EU citizenship will mean for his job prospects in Europe.

Likewise, a woman living in Spain who is a full time carer for her son with Aspergers worries that he may lose his entitlement to PIP (Personal Independence Payments) and carers. Both are currently guaranteed by reciprocal arrangements between Spain and the UK as part of our EU membership. 

And a woman in her thirties working in Ireland is anxious about what will happen to the working rights of her non-EU husband after Brexit. At the moment, Ireland grants non-EU spouses of EU citizens the automatic right to work. But no EU citizenship, means no automatic right to work for the spouse. 

The EU Withdrawal bill has now passed to the Lords where Opposition Peers plan to re-introduce the amendments on EU and UK migrants when it has its second hearing next week. So we can expect the legislative ping pong to continue.

In the meantime, we bargaining chips can only wait and hope for a good hand.

Laura Shields is Chair of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats



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