‘The British attitude to free movement will be key’

The position of British people in France after a Brexit was the subject of a recent dedicated two-hour round table discussion at the French National Assembly. 

The panel of experts present included the director of French social security Thomas Fatome, the president of the British Community Committee of France Christopher Chantrey (who passed on concerns shared by Connexion readers) and the president (speaker) of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, as well as several French MPs. It flagged up many of the issues facing British expats – ensuring that France is able to take note of them. Here we summarise the main points made by each of the participants.

EU law professor Myriam Benlolo-Carabot:

Brexit would be disastrous for Britons’ rights in France unless it is agreed otherwise in negotiations after article 50 is invoked. Britons could be “foreigners like any other”, “lose their special status and be subject to normal immigration rules”. “We can imagine the cataclysm”. [Many having moved here under a certain set of rights and then, having these removed, being left having to fund extras such as healthcare].
The negotiations can take up to two years but can be prolonged if the European Council decides unanimously to do so, which is very likely because there are bound to be matters which will require considerably longer.
The idea of acquired rights is very much contested in international law.
“This means that the issue of rights must all be sorted out in the agreement with the UK,” said Prof Benlolo-Carabot.

However if the UK wants to secure rights for its nationals in the EU it will have to reciprocate for all EU citizens in the UK “and not just certain ones as the UK government would prefer.”
Talk of a ‘hard Brexit’ raises a lot of questions in this respect. 
Britain being a member of the wider EEA – a ‘Norway model’ – is looking unlikely as it would mean continuing to contribute to the EU budget, being subject to checks from the European court and allowing free circulation - all with no say in passing future EU laws.
A ‘Swiss model’ – based on a series of treaties between the UK and EU – would not be any easier. Switzerland finds itself in a complex legal and political dispute with the EU at present due to a referendum vote to introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens.

President of the British Commu­nity Committee Christo­pher Chantrey:

Mr Chantrey told those present he was touched by the interest shown by Parliament. “From the bottom of my heart I say ‘thank you France,’” he said.
The BCC had canvassed views via some 100 local associations linked to the British community, which it represents, as well as the ecreu.com campaign and The Connexion. The referendum result “came as an emotional blow” and was seen as a “threat” by many, Mr Chantrey said. The biggest concern was loss of EU citizenship, which might lead to a loss of rights including freedom to live in other EU countries.
People had committed to France emotionally and financially and most had made lives here out of love of the country. Many contributed to civic life, in roles such as town councillors or association volunteers.

Expats’ concerns included healthcare for retired people who have not paid into the French system (currently having this paid by the UK under the S1 EU scheme), freezing of UK state pensions, the exchange rate, travel restrictions, driving licences, car registration, voting rights and rights to start a business.

There were also issues over rights of residence and cartes de séjour, especially with regard to those who will not have been in France for five years when the UK leaves – the period stated in EU law that establishes a permanent right of residence for EU citizens.

Mr Chantrey added that in some cases prefectures had refused to process Britons’ carte de séjour applications – and the same issue had arisen in one case with regard to the issue of a CEAM (EHIC) card for travel within the EU. Other Britons had asked why they are required to provide new copies and translations of British birth, death and marriage certificates – which do not change – when applying for citizenship, and some asked if a fast-track procedure might be organised.
He said: “One person said France is the country of human rights – it has welcomed refugees from around the world and we now feel in a sense stateless because of Brexit, can France not open its arms to us?”

President (speaker) of the  National Assembly, Claude Bartolone:

“It is clear that there are many issues such as whether a new [social security] convention will have to be signed [between the UK and France].”
[As Connexion reported in August, a former Franco-British convention has been considered ‘largely superceded’ by EU protections in recent years. However the House of Commons library states that pensions upratings (ie annual increases) were paid when it was in force. Upratings are still paid in a number of non-EU countries with social security conventions in force such as the USA and the Philippines].

Director of French social security Thomas Fatome

There are far more British retirees in France than French retirees in the UK – 64,000 compared to 9,000 (even though total numbers of expats are roughly comparable on each side).
Rights enjoyed by Britons – which stand to be lost unless otherwise renegotiated – include not only the S1 form but, for example, a Briton who moves to France to work and then loses their job shortly afterwards can have British National Insurance payments taken into account in their entitlement to French unemployment pay. 
Retirees also benefit from the ‘EU pension system’ which combines periods worked in all EU states and means people do not suffer any penalties linked to having not paid in for a certain minimum period in one state.

Mr Fatome said: “What could happen due to the Brexit? For retirement, periods would no longer be accumulated; there would just be separate pensions in the separate states – mostly likely with penalties, because there will not be the EU advantage of each country considering the entirety of the career.”
However, Brexit would change nothing with regard to old-age pensions that are already being paid, they are an acquired right. Unemployment contributions in another country would be lost if moving abroad, if not agreed otherwise.

“As for healthcare, a ‘hard’ break would raise questions and it is worth noting that the cost to the NHS in 2014 of paying for Britons’ healthcare in France was €80million for around 70,000 beneficiaries whereas the cost for the French assurance maladie for French people in the UK was about €6million – due to the demographic differences in the populations.
“Without specific agreements on healthcare the system would end and it should be noted that in most bilateral agreements on social security there is no agreement on healthcare and people are covered either by the healthcare of the country where they work – in some cases where they live, depending on the rules in the country concerned – or by private health insurance policies.”

‘Non-contributory benefits’ such as RSA income support, at present available from 3 months’ residence to EU citizens, would only be available after five years unless agreed otherwise [Connexion notes that non-EU foreigners currently need 10 years of work in France and/or of holding a carte de séjour allowing work to qualify for the ASPA pension top-up benefit].
Having said that, it is “not very likely” that there would be nothing in the UK-EU exit agreement relating to matters such as these. Possible outcomes include EEA or ‘Switzerland’, meaning little would change; a specific treaty between the UK and EU including social security matters as one part of it, or simply a bilateral social security convention, such as France has with many countries, which often include matters like coordinating pensions so as to favour mobility.
“The British attitude to free movement will be absolutely key. We can find pragmatic solutions, but on condition, it seems to me, that rules of play are established on this,” Mr Fatome said.

Higher Education Ministry official Denis Despréaux:

There are concerns over what will happen if there is a gap between Britain coming out of the EU after two years, and actual completion of negotiations on its new status and putting it in place. 
“It’s not likely negotiating a new status will be completed in two years so we’re looking at a period when the legal basis for our cooperation between universities and on research will be in a catastrophic legal limbo unless we have a temporary agreement.
“For the Erasmus scheme the issue of free movement will be the clincher. There are some third-party countries that take part by paying a fee, but it’s not clear if the UK would be in favour of that, as it loses money on it because it allows students to study in the UK very cheaply, whereas ‘foreign student’ status allows them to charge high fees.”

Brussels workers union leader Félix Géradon:

Many British civil servants in Brussels may lose their jobs. Recruitment is tied to EU citizenship unless exceptions are made and the rules allow people who lose EU citizenship to be sacked.
Probably some will still be needed, including interpreters and translators, because English is likely to remain the EU’s lingua franca, especially as many of the newer EU states prefer to use it.
It cannot be said with certainty if a treaty between the UK and EU will result after the Brexit discussions. 

Mr Géradon said: “There are several options: No Brexit – it’s very unlikely but we cannot exclude the possibility that the British will change their minds – soft Brexit, hard Brexit and ‘extra hard Brexit’.
“Seeing the position the UK government is taking at the moment and that taken by the members states and EU institutions, there’s a strong possibility negotiations will rapidly stall and that we will not have an agreement in two years. Then we will need unanimity of all the states to prolong this period. 
“Considering we’ll have rather tough conflicts in these discussions, it’s not at all impossible that there will be no deal after two years and the EU treaties will cease to apply to the UK. 
“That would be a chaotic situation. We can only hope the UK would respect its responsibilities with regards to the European funds or the central bank. The UK could no longer be obliged to do so by the European court but if it didn’t it would harm their credibility on the international stage.”

Les Républicains eurosceptic MP Jacques Myard:

Many of the problems raised could be resolved through bilateral agreements between the UK and France rather than an overall UK-EU agreement, Mr Myard said. “As for article 50 and the two years the EU is accustomed to ‘stopping the clock’, we will find a way of deciding on certain matters and continuing discussions on others.
“We French have an interest in finding agreement with the British – we are too linked to them, whether in social terms or commercially, because we export more to them than we import.”
Compromises could be found in terms of the four EU freedoms of movement of goods, capital, services and people.

[Mr Bartolone disagreed: “We can’t have discussions without taking all of the EU freedoms together, otherwise it’ll be the end of the EU. Otherwise every country, notably some of the central European countries will want to negotiate various things too.”]

MP, Pierre Lequiller (UMP)
If matters are not resolved in two years that would pose a major problem because “it’s unthinkable for the British to continue to take part in the EU elections [in May 2019] and to continue to have MEPs and commissioners.”

Mr Bartolone said: “What is clear is that we are in a period of uncertainty which isn’t good whether for individuals or firms, neither for the economy nor for research.
“I am surprised when I meet my British counterpart that there is a kind of fear among some of the MPs as to whether it’s in their interest to call for a vote on article 50 because then they’ll have to decide, ‘do we respect the vote of our fellow citizens or do we take a different position’.”
He added: “I can only imagine what this period of doubt is like for the expats on both sides of the Channel and I ask myself whether those who have been in France longer than five years can be protected by any other texts – such as the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Mrs Benlolo-Carabot said “nothing is insoluble, but the situation is highly problematic.” One problem that will arise with regard to bilateral agreements is that France, as an EU state, is subject to European Court authority in terms of what it may agree with non-EU states – so will not be at complete liberty when it comes to terms of future agreements with the UK.
She added: “As to the matter of residents in France for more than five years, the European Convention on Human Rights can be invoked because article 8 protects the right to private and family life and when someone has formed deep roots here in France – and the court has leeway to interpret that – it will want to avoid the worst happening for them.”

Listen to the full debate (French only) here.

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