Campaigners fear threat to Britons' rights in France

Campaigners for Britons living abroad in the EU are worried about risks to their rights after reports that the UK government may go back on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement deal.

7 September 2020
By Liv Rowland

The UK’s Financial Times states that an Internal Market Bill, to be introduced shortly in the British Parliament, is expected to include sections watering down parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (WA) deal concerning Northern Ireland. It is unclear what source the paper has relied on, and other media in English have quoted the FT's reports.

The WA set the stage for Brexit, maintaining key rights of existing expatriates (Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, before December 31, 2020) such as annual uprating of British state pensions or the continuation of healthcare for pensioners under the existing set-up. It also provided for a financial settlement covering the UK’s debts to the EU, and made future arrangements for the Northern Ireland / Ireland border, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.

It is with regard to aspects of the latter, concerning state aid and customs procedures, that the new bill will allegedly alter commitments the UK made in the WA.

The British government has however this morning restated its commitment to the WA. It comes as the EU's negotiator Michel Barnier has also today given reassurances about the protections the WA provides and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stressed the vital importance of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The vice chairman of the British Community Committee of France, Christopher Chantrey, said: “We will have to wait until the bill is published, but it is outrageous if the British government is seriously considering reneging on aspects of an international treaty." He said if that happened there may be implications for other parts of the treaty.

Alan Bretman, the president of Learning Together, a Franco-British association in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, told Connexion he is now asking what value can be placed on “repeated assurances” from the British Embassy that healthcare and pension rights for existing UK residents are guaranteed under the WA.

“Today’s news that the British prime minister is threatening to override the WA will cause alarm to many UK nationals living in EU states,” he said. Many of their members are retirees, he said, therefore reliant on aspects of the WA such as pension uprating and maintained S1 healthcare forms.

The founder of another group representing Britons in the EU, Brexpats Hear Our Voice, Debbie Williams, said: “I have seen the reports but at the moment there is no mention of the citizens’ rights section.

“I am concerned about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, and the chain effect of any changes there.

“Of course it's deeply upsetting to see the way the debate is framed on this as it worries our members.”

British cabinet minister George Eustice told the BBC’s Today programme this morning: “We have a Withdrawal Agreement, and that includes the Northern Ireland protocol. And we are committed to implementing that.”

He then said to BBC Breakfast News that if the UK and EU did not reach a trade deal then “we would still leave on time and we would do that under the terms of the existing Withdrawal Agreement that we’ve got.

“It’s not posturing or a threat; this has been the reality of our position right from the beginning.”

On the elements mentioned by the Financial Times, Mr Eustice said the UK government is seeking to tie up “one or two loose ends where there is a requirement for legal certainty.”

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