EU citizenship for Britons?

A plan to offer ‘associate EU citizenship’ to all Britons, abroad and at home, who so wish to take it after Brexit is gathering steam. 

19 December 2016

Importantly, the idea has the backing of the EU parliament’s designated lead Brexit negotiator, MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium.
However, it is not – despite what some UK media headlines have claimed – already ‘on offer’, but neither is it impossible, as other press has implied. Here we review the plan which could be of interest to many British expats in France.

What is ‘associate EU citizenship’?
It would be an option offered to Britons allowing them to maintain their EU citizenship (alongside their British citizenship), including free movement rights to live and work in other EU countries as are currently in place. An annual fee would be payable, which it is hoped would be set at an affordable level, however it is too early to say how much it might be.
Without this, Britons in France may become non-EU ‘foreigners’ and require various permits, at France’s discretion. It would also ensure that Britons receive equal rights to French people in areas such as access to benefits.
It would therefore resolve many, but not all, uncertainties associated with Brexit (it would not, for example, guarantee British benefits would remain ‘exportable’, that expats’ British pensions would be uprated or that the UK would continue to fund French healthcare for expat pensioners).
It is suggested that associate citizens could vote for MEPs on ‘European lists’ (as opposed to for British MEPs, who would no longer exist) or for French ones.
If it happens it will be new because under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, art. 20 and 2007 Lisbon Treaty, art. 9 EU citizenship is additional to citizenship of an EU state.

What are ‘European lists’?
This has been discussed in EU circles for some time and originally came from British Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff.
A certain number of Parliamentary seats would be set aside for candidates proposed by the European political parties. These parties operate transnationally in Europe and are made up of national parties (for example the Conservative Party is part of one called the Alliance of Conser­vatives and Reformists in Europe). Full EU citizens would vote for an MEP for their region and one from the Euro­pean lists.
Luxembourg MEP Charles Goerens, who proposed the associate citizenship plan, believes the UK’s 73 empty seats would be an ideal opportunity to set this up.

What stage is the plan at?
Mr Goerens drafted a few lines on it as an amendment to a report by Mr Verhofstadt on possible future EU reforms, many of which are long-term aims requiring changes to the EU’s founding treaties. Mr Verhof­stadt then said he would take it up separately as it is too important to wait for treaty changes and needs more priority.
He says it will be debated and voted on when the European parliament agrees a resolution defining its negotiating position for the Brexit deal talks. This will follow the UK’s triggering of article 50, the formal notification by the UK to the EU that it is going to leave. The UK government has said this will be by end of March.
Mr Verhofstadt has also stated that “the ability to keep European citizenship for those who risk losing it will be on the table of the upcoming Brexit negotiations”.
Mr Goerens said they agreed together to withdraw his amendment because the parliament’s debate on the resolution “seems to be the best opportunity to give Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt the possibility to enforce associate EU citizenship.”

A spokeswoman for Mr Goerens added: “I think Guy Verhofstadt’s aim was to make clear that he, as the parliament’s Brexit negotiator, does not want to wait for treaty change to come up before taking up the issue again but to seize the opportunity of the negotiations to bring it up. Readers can help by writing, not just to Mr Goe­rens and Mr Verhof­stadt, because that’s preaching to the choir, but to their UK MP to explain why the UK should accept the proposal and also to their MEP and to the European parliament in general.”
Will the plan definitely be offered by the parliament in the negotiations?
This is uncertain despite Mr Ver­hofstadt’s assertion that it will be “on the table”.
What is definite is that he has promised to bring it up as soon as article 50 is triggered, at the point when the parliament discusses the wording of its resolution.
However, to be included in the resolution as one of the parliament’s stated wishes for the Brexit agreement, it would require support from the other MEPs.
It also seems improbable that he could simply offer it during the ensuing Brexit deal negotiations if he lacked substantial support from the rest of the parliament.

What is the parliament’s current view?
It does not have one yet. Asked about it,
its deputy spokesperson, Marjory van de Broeke, simply said the proposal had been in an amendment that had been withdrawn and the parliament intended to draw up and vote on a resolution on
the Brexit negotiations by late March.

If the parliament does back it, at that stage will it definitely be on offer?
No, because the parliament will be only one of the parties to the Brexit negotiations.
The main deciding body is the European Council, consisting of the heads of state of the 27 remaining EU states and its president (currently Donald Tusk), who will negotiate an exit agreement with the UK.
If article 50 is triggered the council will spend several weeks agreeing rules on how the negotiations will proceed. The parliament is expected to have an advisory role but it is currently expected that the council’s negotiating position will be informed by recommendations from the commission (which is like the EU’s ‘cabinet government’) and that French EU commissioner Michel Barnier will be the main person negotiating in the EU’s name. Mr Verhof­stadt has however warned that if the council does not ‘take the parliament seriously’ he will ‘negotiate directly with the British’.
In the negotiations an agreement on associate citizenship is then likely to depend on whether the 27 states, and Britain, want it. A final exit agreement – possibly including this – will require support from a majo­rity of the EU leaders plus approval by the parliament before it is offered to Britain to ratify, probably with a vote by MPs.
All this must happen within two years unless the remaining 27 agree to an extension. If not, the UK could leave the EU without any deal in place.

What experts think

WHETHER or not associate EU citizenship is offered to Britons after a Brexit will depend on various official bodies agreeing to it, as well as it being legally possible to change the current rule that it only comes as an add-on to citizenship of an EU member state.

Connexion asked the views of the European Commission, the European Council, the British government and academic experts on Europe and citizenship, and on EU law.

Dr Jennifer Jackson-Preece, deputy head of the London School of Economics’ European Institute

The plan is feasible under international law. States, and by extension presumably also supranational bodies like the EU, may have legitimate interests in supporting persons residing abroad including according benefits such as the floated associate citizenship.
However, any such benefits would need to be non-discriminatory (so in this case open to all interested UK nationals) and should not be conferred en masse, so would be expected to involve an individual application procedure of some kind.
If it is a part of the Brexit negotiations, this suggests consent of the UK government would be sought. I note that the UK already allows dual nationality, so in that sense there is some degree of compatibility with existing UK law related to citizenship.
Ultimately, of course, it will only come about if there is sufficient political will behind the proposal inside the EU and the UK.

Dr Renan Le Mestre, specialist in international and European law, Nantes University

As EU citizenship is consecrated by the treaties, they would need to be revised for it to be retained, even partially, by citizens of a state that no longer belongs to the EU. Nothing is stopping the European parliament from voting a resolution calling for the introduction of such citizenship, but ultimately the member states would have to decide if they want to follow through by undertaking amendments to the foundational law. In the current situation it seems to me not impossible but not all that credible.

Christopher Chantrey, British Community Committee of France

There are still lots of unknowns but it’s good that our interests - as EU citizens having used our freedom of movement - are being discussed in this way by the European parliament and taken seriously.

The European Commission

We will not engage in preparatory discussions with the UK authorities before the notification of art. 50 is made to the European Council. There can be no negotiation without notification. As soon as art. 50 has been triggered, we will launch negotiations with the UK regarding the terms and conditions of its withdrawal, in line with the European Council guidelines.

The European Council
There will be no negotiating position until article 50 notification, so associate citizenship cannot be understood to be part of it.

The British government, Department for Exiting the EU

We will not be commenting on specifics nor are we going to give a running commentary on every twist and turn of these upcoming negotiations: it is not in our national interest and it will not help us get the best deal for Britain. We are determined to deliver the best possible outcome both for people living in the UK and for UK nationals living in EU countries, and that is why we are preparing for a smooth and orderly exit from the EU and an arrangement that works for the mutual interest of both sides.

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