Brexit – We’ve all read about it in the papers, watched politicians debate about it, and (hopefully) took part in the referendum regarding it during the summer of 2016. A portmanteau formed from the words British and exit, the word Brexit is synonymous with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Now a global term that you will struggle not to see on a daily basis whilst flicking through a newspaper, Brexit will be a great cause of debate between many of us for the foreseeable future. ‘But what does it actually mean?’ I hear you cry, ‘how will it affect me?’ This is the first thing most of us thought when the results were declared on the 24th of June 2016, especially British expats living in EU countries.
Since the declaration of the referendum result, there has been a lot of chatter regarding the rights of British people living in the European Union. There are currently around 1.2 million British nationals living in the EU (see interactive map below) and it is up to the government to make sure that every single one of their rights are upheld post-Brexit!
Many British expatriates were initially worried that they would get forced out of their homes or lose their benefits, like healthcare, paid for by the British government. This triggered a number of expats to return to Britain after the referendum result, causing expat figures to drop dramatically in some EU countries.
In Spain, the number of UK residents living in Valencia dropped from 96,115 in 2015, to 73,304 in 2017, a staggering decline of almost 20% in just two years! Recently, the Spanish foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, has tried to ease tensions by asserting that the Spanish government would guarantee the lives of Britons in Spain are not disrupted, even if Britain fails to make a deal with the EU, but will other European countries think it as useful to do the same? Brits, of course, are a cash cow to Spain, spending a whopping €1.88 billion in the first three months of 2015, with net spending only increasing year on year.
British pensioners also worried that they would see their pensions frozen after Brexit took place, meaning that their pension would not increase each year in line with inflation. Luckily, an official update, published in early September 2017, confirms that the British government does indeed expect to remain increasing state pensions to expats after the UK exits the EU in 2019. Don’t start stocking up on kidney beans just yet Grandad.
The European Union made it clear from the start of their talks with the United Kingdom that they would not make any decisions on looking after British expats in EU countries until the United Kingdom made a reciprocal offer for the safety of the 3.6 million European nationals living in Britain. Theresa May has since written an open letter to EU nationals, declaring “I greatly value the depth of the contributions you make – enriching every part of our economy, our society, our culture and our national life” and that “I know our country would be poorer if you left and I want you to stay.”
Theresa May has insisted that in the second half of 2018 there will be a transparent and smooth process to allow EU citizens to apply for a “settled status”, announcing that “right now, you do not have to do anything at all. You can look forward, safe in the knowledge that there is now a detailed agreement on the table in which the UK and the EU have set out how we intend to preserve your rights – as well as the rights of UK nationals living in EU countries.”
The UK and the EU even agreed to sustain current residency rights for EU nationals settled in the UK and Britons in the EU in December 2017. This means that citizens on both sides can live, work or study under the same conditions as under Union law. So, if you are already a resident in a country in the EU, or gain residency before the date Britain leaves the EU, you should have the right to stay there permanently.
One of the key issues regarding expats that the UK and the EU have already agreed on is that the cut-off date for freedom of movement should be taking place on the 29th of March 2019. This is when the new application process for living and working abroad begins. The UK is currently trying to push for a later cut-off date so that there can be some form of transitional period, but it is unclear whether it will be accepted at this moment in time. Partners and direct families will also be able to join existing residents, even after the cut off-date.
So what does this all mean for British Expats? It looks like things are set to stay pretty much the same, for the moment…
Brexit seemed like a scary deal for many British expats living in the EU. It is clear, however, that the government does not aim to leave its expats hung out to dry during the whole Brexit process. British expats should sleep well at night knowing that their livelihood is one of the government’s top priorities during this process and that they will more than likely reap the same benefits that they did before Brexit.
Let’s hope the government can live up to their word.