Elizabeth Collett and Meghan Benton / Apr 2017
By triggering Article 50, the UK government has embarked on a two-year journey for which there is no legal precedent or roadmap. Amongst the most complex of issues to be negotiated will be working out what happens to mobile EU citizens—whether those currently exercising their free movement rights by residing and working in the UK, and those ‘Brexpats’ presently in one of the 27 other EU countries. Although the May government has suggested it will guarantee residence rights for current EU nationals in return for similar rights for Brits already living abroad, it has wildly underestimated the complexity of the task, the weakness of its hand, and the risks that could befall some groups of Brexpats if the issue continues to be sidelined.
Brexpats, believed to number about 1.2 million people, are a diverse group, as the plethora of Brexpat lobby groups that have emerged since the referendum shows. There are groups for everything from the rights of retired UK nationals in Spain, through to the niche situation of UK nationals working for EU institutions in Brussels who don’t qualify for permanent residence because of a tax loophole.
These groups also have different concerns. British retirees—of whom tens of thousands are estimated to reside in Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and, of course, Spain—are most concerned about their pensions. But many pensioners may also find their entitlements to health care curtailed or their residence applications turned down because so many move back and forth on a seasonal basis. Spouses, students, and business owners also risk losing entitlements if they default to being treated as non-EU nationals, or being exposed to onerous language tests or minimum salary requirements for their right to stay.
The UK government faces a number of challenges in negotiating for its Brexpats. First, the data on this population is poor. The UK does not keep tabs on its emigrants, and unlike countries such as Poland and Lithuania has little diaspora engagement.
Second, the UK is negotiating on an uneven platform with a number of countries. More than half the British population in Europe’s sunniest climes—Spain, Malta, Cyprus, and Portugal, among them—are over age 50 (and one-third in Malta and Spain over age 65). By contrast, the EU population in the UK is overwhelmingly youthful. Healthcare in some Spanish autonomous communities is under severe strain from pensions from the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia; even if their national governments can broker a deal, the regions may be disinclined to support it.
Third, the UK’s political capital has all but run out in light of the toxic debate on free movement. A number of European leaders are frustrated that some of the issues raised by UK politicians in advance of the Brexit referendum (such as access to benefits and health care for economically inactive EU citizens) could have been easily resolved without threatening—or indeed holding—a referendum.
The reciprocity at the heart of free movement has been tested in recent years. Instead of a system where everyone wins, a number of countries feel as if they have taken on a disproportionately negative burden. The Brexit negotiations offer a chance to address some of these challenges, and stem the risk of further disenchantment with the European project.
But in the short term, the treatment of UK nationals abroad will need to be taken more seriously by the London negotiating team. Rolling back existing rights and entitlements of citizenship, whether deliberately or through politicking and neglect, is a new frontier for a liberal democracy such as Great Britain. While the number of UK nationals abroad might not seem politically significant for a mainstream political party years from election, the implications for the next generation of socially mobile, ambitious Brits who will find their mobility curtailed may well have political consequences for decades to come.