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Health rights and pensions must be made a priority in Brexit talks

Many Britons in France are reeling from the vote and are worried about the impact on sterling and the uncertainties ahead. Connexion spoke to expatriate campaigners and others involved with the British community in France for their reactions

Brian Cave, from the Lot, who has for years campaigned for the rights of fellow expat pensioners on matters like the Winter Fuel Payment and the UK’s ‘15-year rule’, fears the result means, ‘the protection afforded by EU regulations for expats will fall away’. 

He said: “We will become foreigners in France and cease to be European citizens.”

Mr Cave noted that the margin by which ‘Leave’ won the referendum (1,269,501) was similar to the number of expats who, like Mr Cave, could not vote due to the 15-year rule.

“If only Mr Cameron had got the Votes for Life Bill out earlier [a bill with this title was announced in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, but has not been introduced]. How many more ‘Remain’ votes would that have got? Possibly 1.5 to 2million? That may have swung the final result.”

He added: “I feel sick inside – as though a dear relative has died. I feel deserted, abandoned. The future seems bleak for the nation, and for us as British citizens abroad.”

The representative in France for British hardship charity Elizabeth Finn Fund, Mary Hughes, said: “We’re worried about Britons’ healthcare and whether state pensions will be frozen as they are in Australia and Canada. We were incredibly busy when the pound was low in the economic crisis, and I think we will be again.”

The chairman of the British Community Committee of France, Christopher Chantrey, said: “The leave result marks the beginning of years of uncertainty and turmoil — not only for the UK itself, but for the other EU member states, including France, and for the British who live there. What a mess it is going to be, against a background of a falling pound, a likely Brexit-induced recession, and, in France, a rush to apply for French nationality, or at least a carte de séjour permanent.”

Conservative MP Roger Gale, a past-champion of expats’ rights, said: “People say ‘it’ll all be alright, don’t worry’, but I’m sorry, actually there will be no agreement over health or pensions immediately – it’s not been thought through. One assumes nothing will change dramatically immediately, but that’s not the point.”

It is likely that agreements on such matters may have to be reached unilaterally with countries such as France, he said.

“What we’re swapping is certainty for uncertainty. I would not be surprised if a lot of expats say ‘it’s too risky, I’m going home’. We’re in completely uncharted territory.”

The chairman of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats, George Cunningham, said: “They are trying to get out some 2.4million so-called migrants from the UK but are sacrificing the 2.2million British expats on the continent who have to suffer to consequences of this stupidity – many of whom were not given the vote and had no say.

“Also, politically, it will change the way expats feel about their homeland, and how they vote in future elections.”

The Liberal Democrats’ European branch stated the referendum campaign was conducted, ‘without any thought to the well-being and interests’ of expats, and called on the government to, ‘ensure the interests of Britons living abroad are properly taken care of in any negotiations to leave’.

Franco-British honorary avocat Gerard Barron, from Boulogne-sur-Mer, who studied EU law at Cambridge then spent his career heavily invested in Britain’s membership of the EU, said: “This is outrageous; a total disaster, a huge disappointment," he said.

It was “ridiculous” that immigration – which would not go away as a result of the Brexit – had become such a focus, partly due to the UK’s tabloid press.

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