ANALYSIS: Britons in Europe still gripped by fear and loathing over Brexit

It's been four years since the polemic Brexit referendum and now the inevitable moment is upon us. So how have Brits living in Europe come to terms with leaving the EU? Graham Keeley finds out.

ANALYSIS: Britons in Europe still gripped by fear and loathing over Brexit
Photo: AFP

Matthew Tinker moved to France when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.

He left the Iron Lady behind and forged a career in his adopted home as a set designer working in film, television and in theatre.

At one point he worked with David Lean, director of Dr Zhivago among other great films.

“I am sad my grandson Riley will not have the same opportunities as me because of Brexit,” he told me. 

“The Olympics will be on in a few years and I had hoped he could come over from Britain and work here in Paris. But I am not sure that will be possible. It will not be so easy to do that kind of thing in the future.”

He reflected on what he had gained from living in France. 

“Living in France has taught me things about my own culture and the way of thinking. I am sad that for my own son or grandson, these opportunities are going to be more difficult to enjoy.”

His words were typical of the mixture of sadness and anger which came across when I spoke to Brits across Europe this week about their feelings as the UK was about to sail out of the EU next week.

From Finland, to Malta and Austria or Spain there was a sense of fear and loathing.

A few who backed Brexit became disillusioned with the whole idea after witnessing how the negotiations have become mired in dispute.

I had put out an appeal through the campaign group British in Europe to speak to Brits across the continent before the Brexit drawbridge comes down on December 31.

I had half expected that by now many Britons would be resigned to the situation and more worried about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, my phone rang off the hook.

Apart from their immediate worries about residency permissions before Brexit happens,  many were looking ahead – with dread.

What was striking was how many parents were concerned about their futures of their children and how leaving the EU would affect their ability to work abroad or study back in Britain.

Take Sally Urwin. Her son's dreams of studying in Britain are at risk because they were suddenly told they might have to pay international fees of upwards of €30,000 per year.

For Ms Urwin, a teacher, and her husband, a communications officer for a nursing organisation, this would be impossible.

“It makes me wild with anger,” she told me.

Ms Urwin, who lives in Thonon Les Bains near Evian, sent me some responses from UK universities which were confusing to say the least. 

Liverpool University, for example, could not give her a straight answer about whether her son qualified for 'home status' i.e. paying the same fees as a British resident or a foreign resident.

Juliette Couzens, who works as a coach in Austria, was worried about what Brexit might mean for her daughter when she grows up.

Madeleine is only six but obviously parents think ahead.

“What if when my daughter marries a non Austrian and they have a child. Will that child be able to register as an Austrian citizen or what will their status be? It is all so unclear,” she said.

For many of the 1.3 million Britons living in Europe, it will never be quite the same dream as it once was.

Facebook messages abound asking supporters of the EU to write a few words about what living in Europe meant to them. There seems a real sense of melancholy in the air.

Zoe Adams Green, (pictured below) a translator who lives in Rome, feared for the future of her two-year-old son Leo and his cousins in the UK.

“My main concern is the fact my son Leo won't have the opportunity to go to university in the UK, despite being a British citizen,” she said.

“Conversely, his cousins in the UK will not have the opportunities that I had and that Leo will have to live and easily work across Europe.”

Yet, I did not just speak to one side of the Brexit argument. There are, after all, always two sides to every story.

Mark Sampson, who ran the aptly named Euro Bar, in Benalmádena in Spain's Costa del Sol, was a strong supporter of Brexit.

Four years after the referendum, however, he was not so sure it was a good idea.

“It has been such an awful mess on both sides. The fate of millions has been left until New Year's Eve. What kind of a way is this to conduct business?” he said.

I wonder how the next generation will view this moment in history?

Those thoughts from people across Europe written on Facebook or elsewhere might be worth preserving.

They could provide a kind of time capsule for us to reflect on years from now.



Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





Member comments

  1. ‘Fear and loathing’ put together as they are in this headline overplay what surely is a bureaucratically difficult time for the ‘English abroad’. For the UK to wish a return to its own sovereignty is surely understandable although maybe not wated by those who decided to leave the UK and live in the EU. People who did this did so with the knowledge that if all went wrong they could return. They, of course assuming the retention of a UK-within-EU passport, can still do so after January 1st. The process is straight forward. It will also be possible for Brits to move to live in the EU but the process is then more difficult but as politics and times change it is likely that entry into the EU will become more fluid. The Brits have been visiting and living in Italy for hundreds of years. I managed to live quite happily and legally in Italy for five years before and after the UK officially joined the EU. To worry in fear at this stage is understandable but is best relegated to ‘deal with tomorrow’as all is in flux and once calmer waters are reached there may well be changes.

    The UK has never really accepted the EU and as we know many millions of EU citizens don’t either. The UK’s desire to become a sovereign state again and to trade openly and vigorously with the world is a sure sign of a freedom-loving people. Allow us that and give the country time and you will soon see that matters are not so fearful and most certainly not warranting to be loathed.

  2. Well said F Hugh Eveleigh! The article was too emotional and didn’t offer anything to the understanding of the position of Brits in the EU. Your pragmatic solution to deal with the situation tomorrow when all possibilities are clear is to be commended.

  3. And who’d have thought Jacob and Michael would take time out to read and comment on this humble organ – an honour indeed.

  4. Hear hear, F Hugh Eveleigh. As with C Mason Smith, I agree with you. All UK and EU citizens have a right to make their own decisions about where they want to live and. as someone who resides in Sweden, I knew what could happen if the UK left the EU.

    The negotiations showed the chasm between the UK and EU and the attitude of the EU negotiators in thinking that a country would actually want to leave the club was clear for all to see. It was their noses were put out of joint. I am sure that there are politicians from other countries in the EU who will watch what happens over the next couple of years and decide for themselves whether they want to stay in the EU. The fact that the EU might welcome Turkey, a country which the vast majority of its land is in Asia, into the fold is eye-watering and I, for one, am glad that we will not be part of the ridiculous freedom of movement. To see terrorists cause havoc and turmoil in Paris and slip away to Brussels or Amsterdam without noticing they have crossed a national border is indefensible. To see migrants from Africa, most of them economic, stampede across Europe, forcing borders to be closed was dreadful. Yes, I know I chose a couple of extreme examples, but if the article can be so one-sided, so can I.

    Having always been in favour of the UK leaving the EU, I, for one, am glad it is now happening. Sure, there will be rocky times for all Brits, wherever we live, but we’ll get over it and survive.

  5. Remainers could argue all kinds of objections to Brexit- but the elephant in the room is that it was carried out through lies and deceit- to achieve a mythical sovereignty- which actually means very rich people avoiding higher tax, having off shore investment freedom and low EU regulation. Brexit voters were sold a “pup”! The price of this deceit is personal suffering for millions of Brits living in mainland Europe, EU citizens living in the UK, agony for most small and middle sized UK business people, a crisis for the UK’s health and social care staffing and farming and more!! The irony is that the equivalent standards part of the current deal means that there will be debates about our so called mythical sovereignty for years. Get over it and survive- talk about shooting your foot off with a shotgun!!! Happy limping!!
    Adam Carter

  6. Davide – there are many Eurosceptics across Europe, how many countries regularly poll 20, 30 or even over 40% supporting this view? Have these people all been lied to or fit any of the other silly generalisations? Rather than continually agonize over the democratic will of the UK voters, supporters of the EU might find it more profitable to question why there’s so much dissent. The mess the EU have made of the Covid vaccine roll-out would be a topical starting point.

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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.”