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BREXIT

Just how guaranteed are the rights of Britons living in Europe?

With the UK government prepared to override parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the EU responding by launching legal action on Thursday, should Britons in the EU be worried about their future rights?

Just how guaranteed are the rights of Britons living in Europe?
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in central London. AFP

Ever since the UK government provoked anger in Brussels by admitting it was prepared to break international law to override parts of the Brexit Withdrawal agreement, Brits living in the EU have understandably become twitchy once again.

After years living in limbo, their rights and futures were eventually guaranteed by the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement in January 2020.

The Withdrawal Agreement sets out the principle, with certain caveats, that British people who are already resident in the EU by December 31st 2020 can stay there.

As such it is a crucial document to the nearly 1 million British people who have made their homes in Europe – but the escalating row between London and Brussels over the document is making many nervous.

After the UK government put forward legislation that would give them the power to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, campaign group British in Europe said they had been inundated by queries from worried UK residents around Europe.

“We have been receiving anxious enquiries from our members about what a breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol could mean for the implementation of the citizens' rights chapter of the Withdrawal Agreement and for their futures,” said the statement.

“The Member States will rightly now question whether the UK will honour its obligations towards over three million EU citizens living within its borders.”

But how worried should Britons living in Europe be now that the row has escalated to the point where by the EU announced on Thursday it had launched legal action against Boris Johnson's government?

Firstly there is the question of how significant the launch of this legal action really is.

Seasoned commentators on Brexit and legal experts suggest the move by the EU, just like the UK government's controversial internal market legislation, is all part of a sideshow around the tense but ongoing talks to reach a trade deal.

“Ultimately this may be political theatre on the EU side, to match the UK. There are lots of 'off ramps' in an infringement proceeding – most of these cases are settled before they ever reach the CJEU. It's possible for the case to be dropped if the bill is amended as part of a deal,” said Steve Peers, Professor of European human rights law at the University of Essex

 

In other words both sides are flexing their muscles to demonstrate they are prepared to walk away from talks on a trade deal, in the hope that it will push the other side towards accepting an agreement on their terms.

Can the Withdrawal Agreement be suspended?

But what about the law regarding the Withdrawal Agreement and resolving disputes between the two sides when they arise?

Under the Brexit divorce deal agreed and ratified by the UK and the EU 27,  if a dispute arises between the EU and UK over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement then it can be settled by a joint committee.

If the committee cannot resolve the row then an arbitration panel selected by each side will be set up.

This panel has the job of issuing binding decisions and if those rulings are not complied with, then potential penalties and sanctions could follow.

In a worse case scenario parts of the Withdrawal Agreement could also be suspended, but crucially the part relating to citizens' rights cannot be.

In an even more extreme scenario, experts believe the Withdrawal Agreement provisions are also protected under the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, which means the UK or the EU 27 would not simply be able to terminate the treaty.

What about implementation? 

What is likely to be more of a real concern to Brits around the EU right now is not the legal wrangle or the fraught trade talks, it's the moves made by each EU country to enshrine the rights guaranteed by the Brexit agreement into national law.

There are no particular concerns that EU countries won't do what is necessary, even in France which has yet to start accepting residency applications for the 150,000 to 300,000 British residents.

But if issues do arise and there are disputes over citizens' rights then Brits in the EU do have some protection.

A special committee will try to resolve disputes and for the next eight years the Court of Justice of the European Union will continue to have jurisdiction over disputes involving citizens' rights in both the UK and the EU.

When it comes to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement the EU Commission has the job of closely monitoring the measures taken in each country.

The commission says: “The implementation and application of citizens' rights in the EU will be monitored by the Commission acting in conformity with the Union Treaties. In the United Kingdom, this role will be fulfilled by an independent national authority. 

“The Authority and the European Commission shall inform each other annually through the Joint Committee established by the Withdrawal Agreement of the measures taken to implement and enforce the citizens' rights under the Agreement. Such information should include in particular the number and nature of complaints treated and any follow up legal action taken.”
 
But what about in reality?
 
 
While governments and the EU commission may genuinely be looking after the rights of Brits in the EU, there may however be problems at a more local level.
 
Brexit and its impact is understandably hard to get to grips with for business owners around Europe, some of whole may jump to the wrong conclusion that because Britain was leaving the EU, that meant British citizens had lost their right to work in the country.
 
 
And the confusion over the status of British people has already lead to some people being wrongly asked to supply extra paperwork in relation to employment, driving and receiving benefits.
 
These type of incidents will likely become more and more common and it will often be left up to individuals to explain our rights.
 
But all in all, Brits in the EU shouldn't worry too much about the impact the escalating spat between Brussels and London will have on their rights to stay in the countries they have made their homes.
 
But can the same be said for EU citizens in the UK?
 
“It's unlikely that there will be any push-back on citizens' rights from the EU side,” said Kalba Meadows from British in Europe.
 
“It's more a question of good faith (or lack of it) and the message that it sends to the EU that if the UK can't be trusted to honour one part of the Withdrawal Agreement, can it really be trusted to implement the citizens' rights parts?”

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IMMIGRATION

How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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