The plea was made by representatives from France, Spain, Italy and Belgium, who were heard in the Commons by the MPs’ select committee on Brexit.
During the hearing, the chairman of the British Community Committee of France, Christopher Chantrey, also called for a resolution to be passed by both houses of Parliament at the moment of triggering Article 50, committing to maintaining residency rights of EU citizens living in the UK and calling on the other EU states to reciprocate.
He said this was “so these issues are solved and put to bed right at the start of the negotiation process, so we can get on with the enormous task of negotiating on all the other subjects.”
Asked if the UK should hold back to secure a promise for Britons first, he said he thought it would be “magnanimous” and “a good way of opening negotiations” for the UK to offer it to EU citizens in Britain unilaterally.
The prospect of Brexit – especially if the UK pulls out of the single market – means many uncertainties, starting with the right of residence.
Even for Britons who have been living in France five years and gained a ‘permanent right of residence’ (which may be certified with a carte de séjour – ‘séjour permanent’), it is unclear what rights they would have on losing the EU citizenship on which this right is based.
Permanent cards might become ‘waste paper’, Mr Chantrey feared.
Having spoken with French MPs last October, he will take up Britons’ rights with the French again after the presidential elections.
Also raised in the hearing were annual pension increases (see box, right) and health cover for British expat pensioners.
Sue Wilson of the ‘Remain in Spain’ group said many Britons retired to other EU countries “in good faith, in full expectation of the annual pension increases” and this was different from moving to a country such as Australia, where UK pensions are frozen because this was known in advance of any move.
Mr Chantrey, however, argued that any freezing of expat pensions, in any country, is based on ‘specious grounds’.
“I think we should all be treated the same – but not in a shabby way. With no discrimination according to where we live. However, in the future there will be fewer Britons moving abroad to EU countries. It is pensioners, first and foremost, who will stay put and contribute to pressure on the NHS.”
The problem of Britons losing access to the ‘EU pension system’ was also raised as, at present, someone who has worked in several EU countries can have their whole EU working period taken into account, which can help avoid certain financial penalties.
Regarding pensioners’ healthcare in EU countries, Britons have the right to French healthcare paid for by the UK under the EU’s S1 form scheme. If this was abolished without replacement, it could mean pensioners having to either take out full private policies, or – if permitted by France – join the French state’s ‘PUMA’ scheme, which requires payments at a proportion of income for all but very low-income residents.
Private policies could be very expensive, especially for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, the representatives said.
However, they added that both of these matters were in the gift of the UK and did not rely upon a reciprocal deal.
Ms Wilson said: “These are the biggest two issues – and both of those are paid for by the UK government so why is there a need to wait two-and-a-half years to find out if we can keep them? It’s not something that has to be negotiated with the Spanish government or Italian government or EU. It’s a decision the UK can make for its own citizens, and we are as British as any British citizen that lives in the UK.”
The MPs also asked about obtaining nationality in the EU countries to maintain certain rights, and Mr Chantrey replied that Britons should not feel “we have to do it”, because “we are British and proud of it”. He added that many had opted for it, but the application process was “extremely cumbersome”.
The problem of the falling exchange rate – which has already reduced the value of British pensions – was also raised, with Ms Wilson saying “we need to get away from the idea that [Britons abroad] are all on holiday, having a wonderful time... Many moved to Spain because it was cheaper to live there and they could afford to buy property there”.
If, on top of this, healthcare was no longer paid for this could be a ‘dealbreaker’ and thousands may be forced to return to the UK, said Belgium resident Debbie Williams.
Gareth Horsfall, who lives in Italy, said there may be a problem over the rights of working people to set up businesses or to have British qualifications recognised.
He said that if UK qualifications were no longer recognised he may have to sit an exam in Italian to continue to do his job.
“If you look at UK qualifications that are recognised in Italy, there are 383 professions on the list” – all people who might no longer be able to work.
Britain freezes the pensions of expats in many non-EU countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand...) at the rate when they left the UK or when they started to draw the pension, and ministers have been asked to look at doing the same for expats worldwide.
Pensioners in the UK or in 16 countries with social security agreements on uprating, such as the US, Jamaica or Philippines, are guaranteed annual increases through the ‘triple-lock’.
In the hearing, former social security minister Peter Lilley said he understood Britain had agreed to uprating in countries with roughly similar numbers of expats in each direction, but not in those, like Canada or Australia, where there was a ‘net outflow’ (more Britons leaving the UK to live there).
Ex-minister John Whittingdale said expats in such countries objected to upratings for people in the EU, and asked if “there’s a case that all Britons who’ve chosen to live abroad, whether in South Africa or Spain, be treated the same” by having pensions frozen.
Pension increases were paid during a social security agreement between the UK and France before the UK entered the EEC, however, the deal is since said to have been superceded by EU free movement rules.