Campaigners and Connexion join MEPs over expat rights

Connexion joined MEPs and expat campaigners in Brussels to call for protection of rights of EU27 citizens in the UK and Britons' rights in the EU27 - two separate hearings stressed that their interests must be discussed at the earliest opportunity in the Brexit talks and if possible 'ring-fenced' off from other matters such as the 'divorce bill' or trade. 

24 May 2017
By Oliver Rowland

The consensus was that real people’s lives must come first when it comes to the Brexit negotiations. The idea that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” should be abandoned in this respect, many speakers said, firstly at an evening at a private venue to an audience of 100 and broadcast live to thousands on Facebook then at a hearing the following day at the European Parliament.

Connexion journalist Oliver Rowland was among speakers at the evening event, passing on readers’ concerns about such problems as healthcare and pension rights or difficulties in obtaining permanent residence cards. Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld explained how she came to create a ‘taskforce’ to help protect citizens’ rights. “We’re tying to put pressure on everybody,” she said. Speaking of Brexit, she added: “Some people have said the EU is vindictive and wants to punish the UK, but I don’t recognise that. Everybody is just sad. It feels like a break-up in a family.”

Taskforce colleague Briton Catherine Bearder urged Britons to spread the word about how they are affected by every means possible. “When people voted for the referendum they thought it would be without cost,” she said. “They need to hear the personal stories about what it means.”

MEPs pledged to prepare a new resolution specifically on citizens’ rights, by early September, which would bolster the so-called ‘red lines’ one it already published setting out its overall wishes for the outcomes of the Brexit talks. However the warned that giving Britons who volunteer for it full 'associate citizenship' could prove impossible (see more below).

The evening event was organised by Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats with the MEPs’ EU citizens taskforce, while the second was organised by the taskforce with three committees of the European Parliament, LIBE (civil liberties, justice and home affairs), PETI (petitions) and EMPL (employment and social affairs).

The UK government declined an invitation to send a representative to speak.

Videos for the two events can be found at, respectively https://goo.gl/5xd230 (tablets/mobiles at: https://goo.gl/nkwsRu) and https://goo.gl/lEBtLl.

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Speaking at the European Parliament hearing European Parliament, the parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said he had received emails from some six or seven thousand invividuals worried about the impact of Brexit on their lives.

“Most of them ended by saying something like: ‘I don’t know what to do? What are my rights?’, he said.

“We’ve also received more than 100 petitions to the parliament, one of which, about whether it is possible for UK citizens to keep their link to the EU, had more than 300,000 signatures.

“The issue is at the same time massive and individual – every case is different. People are anxious and afraid.

“Most of them moved in good faith, maybe years ago, and made their new country their home.

“Our objective for people on both sides is that they can continue their life [in their chosen countries] for the rest of their lives.”

Mr Verhofstadt said the parliament, with its ‘red lines’ resolution published on April 6 had influenced guidelines drawn up by the other EU institutions and he said securing the interests of both EU27 citizens and British citizens would be “paramount”.

This being “dealt with satisfactorily” would be a crucial to whether or not the parliament gives its consent to the ‘divorce deal’, he said.

During the negotiations he said the parliament should be ready to apply pressure whenever there was hesitation on either the EU or UK’s part to go far enough for citizens’ rights.

He added: “I think that after June 8 we must start the negotiations with citizen’s rights so as to be ready as fast as possible in the months after that. It could take weeks, it could take months, but must be the first point on the agenda. And we must conclude it and make it public so we take away the uncertainty.”

Doing so successfully could be made a key factor in whether or not the negotiations may proceed to the latter phase of considering the ‘future relationship’ (a framework for trading arrangements), he said.

‘Negotiation directives’ set to be signed off by European affairs ministers of the EU27 on May 22 were intended to give detail of “what the EU will put on the table”, Mr Verhofstadt said. MEPs have written to the ministers making it clear ‘who’ must be protected – that is not only workers but ‘inactive’ people as well; all those “living or working in their country of residence before exit day”.

“There have been rumours from the UK side that it could be from the day of triggering article 50, but that is not right,” he said.

Protections for family members of residents should also be considered, he said.

‘What’ is protected must also be clear – including access to healthcare and education, the labour market and having their qualifications recognised.

Future legal protection and enforcement for their rights must also be considered, he said.

Mr Verhofstadt said a new resolution to be prepared by early September would aim to “create the necessary pressure on points that we want to be in the final agreement.

A spokeswoman for campaign group The 3 Million, Anne-Laure Donskoy asked the MEPs to “support ring-fenced rights”. She also called for a simpler application form for permanent residence in the UK and the end to complications which have seen people such as housewives told they may not have it because they did not take out private healthcare policies. She asked that the same rights also be extended to those in legal residence less than five years or those who had gaps in their residence history due to, for example, work or spending time out of the UK caring for a relative.

She warned that if EU citizens in the UK in future were treated as ‘3rd country citizens’ as Mrs May is claimed to have suggested at a recent dinner in Downing Street, they would not have access the same social security rights, for example, or would have to pay high international fees to go to university.

The group was working closely with the British in Europe coalition who have many similar concerns, she said.

 London University politics professor Jonathan Portes, told the parliament: “The mess we are in was both predictable and frequently predicted. I frequently pointed out during the campaigns that the claims of the Leave campaign that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere had nothing to worry about were ignorant deceptive or both, and so sadly it has proved.”

He welcomed recent draft guidelines published by the Commission [which were set to be confirmed by the Council on May 22] which call for strong reciprocal protections for those who are residents on Brexit Day. “Their proposals are maximalist, but are only what Vote Leave and a number of those now in government who campaigned for Leave were promising before the referendum,” he said.

The EU had “called the UK’s bluff” by broadly guaranteeing all rights.

Speaking for the London-based New Europeans pro-Europe campaign group Samia Baldani said the UK had proposed negotiating citizens’ rights “one by one”, but this was “unacceptable”.

She said uncertainty was causing a deterioration of people’s mental health. The EU should give Britons in the EU a unilateral guarantee, which would put the UK in an “untenable position”, she said.

Lawyer Jane Golding of campaign coalition British in Europe said expats were “living in limbo” and for some, especially retirees, it was “taking a toll on their health”. They needed comprehensive guarantees – the right to remain may be useless without also, for example, recognition of qualifications of continuing healthcare for pensioners.

Even taking citizenship of the host country is not a ‘panacea’, she said.

Taskforce originator Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP said citizens’ rights were not just a ‘legal’ or ‘technical’ matter, but “a moral one and an issue of humanity”. “I’ve been very affected by all the personal stories I have heard,” she said.

She added: “Let’s put this in a different context. Let’s imagine there is a medium-sized country somewhere in the world where there are no basic human rights, no legal certainty and your family can be deported at any moment. You can lose your job and qualifications from one day to the next. We’d call this a banana republic at best, it could never be a member of the EU.”

She said disruption of rights – or otherwise – was a choice for leaders, not unpredictable, “like the weather”.

“People need an absolute guarantee from all governments that nobody will be forced to leave after Brexit, not by law, not by circumstances.”

She welcomed the fact rights are expected to be prioritised in the talks, but said there had to be a “contingency plan in case the process collapses”.

“We can’t just say ‘sorry guys, we tried’.”

Labour MEP Richard Corbett said it was still possible Brexit would not happen – which was the only absolute guarantee of rights. However if it goes ahead, any agreement with the UK must be compatible with the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, he said.

He said it is the parliament’s duty to defend citizens, and if necessary it should refer any issues to the ECJ.

Scottish MEP Alyn Smith told the hearing: “I am receiving messages on a daily basis, that break my heart. This is not a dry academic exercise. We’ve been set a challenge and we need to rise to it… Let’s see a unilateral act of generosity that will move things forward. Find a way to do it and set a date.”

Taskforce member Jean Lambert (green) said: “Some in the UK say ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but it’s absolutely clear from what we have heard that whatever you might think about World Trade Organisation tariffs, for example, it is manifestly untrue when it comes to people’s lives.”

Associate EU citizenship – ‘may be be impossible’

PARLIAMENT chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said real ‘associate citizenship’ as envisaged by MEP Charles Goerens who originated the idea would almost certainly require a change to the EU treaties (as Mr Goerens previously told Connexion).

Mr Goerens has proposed that Britons could opt to remain EU citizens on payment of an annual fee.

Mr Verhofstadt said: “That’s not an easy issue because legally-speaking the protection of the rights they currently have sounds impossible. There’s always a possibility to do it, to change to treaties, but I found that the appetite is not so big on this issue,” he said.

“We cannot actually create special citizenship for UK citizens for the simple reason that… EU citizenship in fact depends on the citizenship of a member state; it complements national citizenship by providing rights to nationals of EU member states.”

Nonetheless he said that the EU could “offer certain advantages and privilages” to UK citizens who have lost their citizenship. In fact he said, they could be offered much the same rights as citizens, including – if a proposed idea of ‘transnational lists’ is taken up – the chance to vote in European elections.

He said MEPs have now asked the Council and Commission to examine how far it is possible to go with this and the issue should be discussed at the earliest opportunity. Points raised in the hearing had showed the were “huge possibilities”, he said.

In a message to the parliament, Mr Goerens, who was absent, said he is “very concerned about the plight of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere”.

“We will do what we can in the parliament, but the EU cannot let down the millions affected and we must work towards mitigating or stopping it,” he said.

 

Petitions

 

PETI committee chair Cecilia Wikstrom said petitions to the parliament from the UK were usually 5-6%, but that doubled in 2016, with 127 on Brexit so far.

Two members of the public spoke at the parliament hearing to explain petitions they had submitted.

One argued that Britons who are now EU citizens should be allowed to keep this, saying this was not an unfair advantage to the UK, as future British citizens would not have such a right.

The nature of EU citizenship needs a ruling by the European Court, the second petitioner said. It could be argued it is additional to citizenship of an EU state, not dependent on it, and nothing in the treaties provides for it to be removed. It should therefore be ‘non-negotiable’.

She said the UK government had been reckless in offering the referendum and Britons were now “punished” by facing losing their citizenship. “I ask the parliament and EU negotiators not to forget all their citizens, because as of today we are still the EU28.”

 

Erasmus

 

Professor Charlie Jefferey, senior vice principal of the University of Edinburgh said Erasmus was of tremendous benefit to students and every British university wants maintaining full participation in it to be a key Brexit negotiation goal.

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