Expats who can vote in EU referendum urged to do so
SEVERAL readers have contacted Connexion asking for clarification of the effects of a Brexit on their everyday lives.
We stress that, despite high profile statements to the contrary, nothing is certain at this stage and the deals which the UK would work out with remaining EU states in the case of leaving the EU will not be known in advance of the referendum.
However, it is possible to identify issues which might be affected because they are linked to rights arising from EU membership.
These start with the right of expats to live and work in France.
Britons in France would be classed as étrangers (‘foreigners’ - as people from outside the EU are called) and might have to apply for fixed-term residence permits and perhaps show a required skill or sufficient wealth.
They may no longer become ‘permanent residents’ with associated rights after five years.
‘S1’ health forms are an EU scheme: Britain may therefore cease to pay for British pensioners’ French healthcare. Expat pensioners may also no longer be eligible for free healthcare on visits to the UK and other French residents might lose the right to use EHIC cards in the UK or arrange planned treatments there under EU health directive rights.
The DWP confirms that, in the absence of a new reciprocal agreement, Britain would freeze expats’ state pensions. If there was no ‘EU pension’ arrangement, a Briton’s French pension could be worth less when claimed. Lacking S1s, UK pensioners might have French social charges at 7.4% levied on all British pension income and UK disability benefits may no longer be ‘exportable’.
The lowering of the pound may accelerate, meaning sterling would buy less in France.
Connexion stresses that the above are situations that could happen but are not certain. The situation would depend on the agreements reached. Some commentators say the 1969 Vienna Convention would maintain the status quo for existing expats. This agreement, brokered by the UN, refers to acquired rights under treaties between states being retained if a treaty is changed or cancelled (‘unless the parties agree otherwise’). However, this is not universally agreed.
One experienced international lawyer told Connexion it is uncertain the convention would protect the rights of ordinary individuals. Most ‘EU rights’ (eg. on healthcare or pensions) come from directives and regulations, not treaties, he said. Furthermore France is not a party to the Vienna Convention and was the only UN country to vote against it. Although the Constitutional Council says France considers itself bound by many of its main dispositions, this is a further reason for caution, the expert said. Connexion contacted the UN in Geneva about the issue but it said it could not comment.
The truth is a Brexit would be something new – Greenland left the EU’s forerunner the EEC in 1979 when it gained home rule; however it was formerly part of, and retains links with, Denmark, which remained.
The chairman of the campaign group Brits Abroad: Yes to Europe, George Cunningham, said: “The only way to guarantee certainty that our rights and benefits remain is for us to vote to remain in. If things go against us, the UK and other governments will go into complicated negotiations.
“In the EU everything works on reciprocity and equality. What the UK doesn’t want to do for foreigners in the UK, other countries will say it’s the same for Brits abroad and the whole thing will unravel.
“The UK will potentially have to make separate arrangements with a lot of countries. What is sure is it won’t be better than now and there will be a lot of issues.”
Mr Cunningham, whose campaign is organised by the Liberal Democrats’ Brussels and Europe branch but open to all, said expats should “pull together” regardless of political views, to register if they can and to do lobbying. He said: “We do not know how many expats there are who are eligible to vote but there are three groups we want to target especially – British Erasmus students at universities in the EU, who are benefiting from the EU enormously but might never have registered because they’re young. Then working Brits; then retirees.
“Many retirees may have lost their vote, but they have time to write to the media and to MPs for their old constituencies – to give the expat view and to stimulate friends and relatives.
“We want to register in people’s minds that there are an enormous number of expats and we will be potentially profoundly affected if we come out. If people only think to register as momentum builds to referendum day, it may be too late. We must take into account all possible delays and allow for councils to process everything.
“If you have reliable friends and family in the UK we recommend using a proxy because councils will be thinking more about the local post than that for abroad.”
An EU expert for the British Embassy, Olaf Henricson-Bell, said that considering the complexity of the issue, negotiations would be likely to take longer than the two-year legal minimum if there was a Brexit.
“This is the most important choice we’ll make as a country in a generation and so it’s important everyone has their say – whichever way you vote. It will affect all of us, economically, in security and in day to day practical things.”
He added: “The government’s view is that we are stronger, safer and better off inside the EU whether it’s handling threats from other countries or terrorists or an access to a vote over the rules of the world’s biggest market and part of trade deals with the world’s biggest economies. There is also a host of benefits for expats that flow from EU membership.”
He added there is no clear picture of what the alternative would be. “What’s clear is models like Switzerland, Norway and Canada would see us worse off due to losing some access to the EU market. For example Canada has no provision for free trade in services and our economy is mostly service-based.
“Or you lose control – Switzerland and Norway have no vote. And if you want full access you have to accept free movement of people and contributions to the EU budget. What’s not on the table is to leave and negotiate a better deal. We would ‘pull the leaver’ for leaving on June 24, then negotiations would start. It would then be massively complicated and difficult.”
British Conservative MP Roger Gale, who has in the past expressed Eurosceptic views, said the uncertainties associated with a Brexit and the potential for loss of expatriate rights as the reason he recently decided to support a vote to ‘remain’.
He said: “Leaving could have profound effects on the receipt of disability benefits by expat pensioners.
“I’ve discussed this with the minister for Europe and so much is unclear. At the moment they are exportable, under EU law. Any government could pay benefits voluntarily if they chose to, and there’s also a potential fudge whereby there might be ‘grandfather rights’ and those inreceipt could continue to receive them but not new claimants. However the DWP could say, as they said with the Winter Fuel Payment, that they’re not paying them.”
He added: “Whether pensions would be uprated is also unsure, unless we reached a reciprocal agreement with Europe. But all this would be subject to renegotiation, whereas now there’s certainty.”
Sir Roger said it is also unclear whether such matters would be agreed in new treaties between the UK and EU - or whether there might have to be separate ones between the UK and different states. “I imagine for that there would need to be unanimity, and there might not be.”
He said he had also become convinced the EU would in the future be important in matters such as preventing rising far right extremism in many European
countries and for the UK’s defence and security.
“Looking further ahead I think if Britain voted out there would be huge pressure in France and Germany in particular from the hard right and you can foresee the rise of fascism again across Europe.
“And just as important are defence and security interests. We are seeing the rise of, effectively, a new Soviet Union. If Putin could damage Nato and the EU he would.”
He said there were also question marks over the future of the UK’s agriculture if ties are cut unilaterally with the system of EU subsidies.
He said: “I am 73 and will be gone before the true effects of all this are felt and I don’t want to bequeath to my grandchildren that level of uncertainty.”
Spokesman for campaign group Leave.eu Jack Montgomery said fears of expats losing access to public services or becoming ‘illegal immigrants’ were unfounded.
“Firstly, the UK more than covers the cost for its nationals resident abroad. For example, we paid £674 million in 2014- 2015 to other EU countries to cover the cost of healthcare for our citizens, receiving just £49
million to offset the cost of caring for EU nationals in return.
“Secondly, British expatriates living in the EU after Brexit would all enjoy ‘acquired rights’ under international law. The key thing is the Vienna Convention of 1969, which states clearly that the termination of a treaty ‘does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination’. Anyone from Britain who has moved to France prior to Brexit will see no change to their current entitlements.”
Member of the Scottish Parliament Christian Allard, who is French, said a second Scottish referendum may result if England votes to leave, but Scotland votes to stay. “The SNP is strongly against a Brexit but one referendum could lead to another. A constitutional crisis would occur.”
He said a survey had showed a majority of Scots would vote to leave the UK if there was a second Scottish referendum post-Brexit. However he said: “We want Scotland and the UK to stay in the EU.”
Mr Allard said it is an ‘anomaly’ that he, along with 1.5 million other EU nationals in the UK will not be allowed to vote, despite being highly affected by the outcome, much as British expats are.
He added: “British expats in the EU should be able to vote as the outcome of the referendum will have an impact on them. Moreover in democracy we always take it as a principle that as many people as possible should be able to vote”.