Whoever forms a government after the next election may feel obliged to hold a referendum in order to lance a malignant political boil that is distracting the country from other business.
That could lead to Britain unilaterally withdrawing from its treaty obligations to allow “the free movement of peoples”.
Powers over immigration policy would be repatriated but there would be a price to pay by a certain sector of the British population: those of us who choose to reside in another EU state.
If you are an expatriate living in France – or you have property or business interests here – you would be right to be concerned about this. Now is the time to ask questions and to make your opinions known to the decision makers. That is, if you can get anyone to listen to you. You might have thought that political parties and government agencies would be busy drawing up ‘plan Bs’ but there is not much evidence of this.
“No one is talking about withdrawing,” a spokesman for the Conservative Party explained bluntly.
“It’s a long way off,” said a press officer from the Department of Work and Pensions vaguely when asked what would happen to the pensions and benefit of Britons living abroad if they found themselves outside the EU.
The campaign organiser for Votes for Expat Brits, Christopher Chantrey, has petitioned the French Ministry of the Interior’s department for foreigners, the Direction Générale des Étrangers en France (DGEF) on its plans but it won’t be drawn.
“It’s a hot potato. I don’t think they will want to be seen making contingency plans for something that is undesirable.”
There is, though, one British political party willing to speak openly about the effect of a “Brexit” on expatriates.
UKIP believes that scrapping the EU’s right to the free movement of people will be no loss to anyone.
“The vast majority of British people living in other EU states are either pensioners or people in highly skilled jobs,” declared the UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions recently, meaning that they would be acceptable collateral damage. He didn’t give a source for this claim and it is almost certainly inaccurate. The best available estimate is that no more than 26% of expats in other EU states are retired and there is little sign of the million “highly skilled jobs” that would be needed to make up the numbers. Most expatriates in France are not shielded from the drastic changes that may be upon us by virtue of wealth or employment status.
Quite the opposite. They are vulnerable and the uncertainty makes things worse.
So what would life be like for expatriates in France if Britain pulls out of the EU? The short answer is that we would become like children in a divorce case, who have grown used to things as they are but will now find their lives dictated by decisions made on their behalf by people who may or may not be aware of their best interests.
“It’s hard to speculate because we’ve never seen this before,” says professor Simon Hix, Head of the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. “It depends on how it happens and the state of things when it happens.”
Keeping things simple, there are three possible scenarios for the aftermath of a withdrawal:
1) Britain quits the EU but stays part of the European Economic Area (EEA), to become like Switzerland or Norway. It’s hard to see the advantage of this and it is unlikely to satisfy the calls for immigration control.
2) Having left the EU, Britain makes a series of ad hoc bilateral agreements with the EU or member states individually.
3) Britain finds itself out of the Union and is unable or unwilling to make agreements on the movement of people between countries.
Anti-EU campaigners say there is nothing to worry about; that not much will change for expats.
Other EU countries, they argue, will not want to restrict the free movement of their own peoples and there will be an easy, negotiated transition to a new arrangement with all the advantages of the situation before. This optimistic view, however, assumes that Britain is in a strong bargaining position at the time of the divorce and that other countries do not take bloody-minded reprisals.
What is almost certain is that if Britain sets controls on its immigration from EU states, those states will reciprocate. At the very least we are likely to see the return of border controls and immigration quotas based on work skills or independent wealth. No longer will a British passport be sufficient for someone to go and live and work where he or she chooses.
It is probably wrong to expect retroactive legislation.
Simon Hix doesn’t see a sudden uprooting of expatriates but there will inevitably be a change. “I don’t think people who are already resident in other countries will be affected. I think there might be a line in the sand, going forward. But they may see changes in their access to health care, pensions and benefits.”
More important may be the psychological, social and cultural changes that follow a break up. There may be new arrangements to smooth the changes but in place of a clear, egalitarian system of opportunity we could end up with an opaque, byzantine system of restrictions which favours those with money or who know how to play the system over unresourced migrants who have taken the risk of starting a new life in France because the zeitgeist has been with them.
But it doesn’t end with a reduced flow of migrants from Britain to France. The flow may be reversed.
As regulation mounts and the rewards of living in France are reduced, many Britons may feel that it is no longer worth the effort to stay here. This would lead to an unexpected twist in the immigration story as Christopher Chantrey explains: “Some people will think: we tried a new adventure, it didn’t work. We have to go back home. If that happens, the UK could be faced with a large number of people coming back. Immigration is about pressure on housing, infrastructure and hospitals meaning that you would be trading one group for another”.
None of this seems to have registered in Westminster where there is a growing sense that the principle of freedom of international movement doesn’t matter as much as the crises of short term domestic politics. Expatriates as a lobby group are easy to ignore because very few of them register to vote.
The future might turn out very different if the 1.25 million adult Britons living in other EU countries realise that they constitute almost 3% of the British electorate (without counting friends and families), or the equivalent of 16.5 constituencies. Were they all to vote for their own self-interest - to keep Britain in the EU – the case for withdrawal wouldn’t even get off the ground.
What would life in France look like without EU citizenship?
FOR anyone who does not remember what life was like before Britain joined the Single Market, here are a few ways in which life may change in the wake of a British exit. The details would depend on any bilateral agreements signed, but you can expect some or all of the following, either immediately or emerging gradually:
MONEY and TAX
Exchange controls on money coming
into and going out of France may be reintroduced.
There would be changes to tax
arrangements including capital gains tax.
We probably won’t see the return of
visas but there are likely to be more
stringent border checks on people
coming into France, including
relatives visiting family. They may be
required to show a return ticket and
prove they have sufficient funds for
their stay. There will be more bureaucracy
and longer queues at ports and
airports. Going home, you will have
to keep within your duty-free limits.
Franco-British couples might face
intrusive question at border posts as
a boyfriend or girlfriend is asked to
prove that he or she is not intending to
seek work. Some budget airline routes
might become infeasible because of
reduced demand and disappear.
Britons – including pensioners – would
no longer have automatic right to use
the French state healthcare system. All
Britons may have to take out private
insurance. Visitors would no longer be
covered by an EHIC or S1.
It could become impossible to claim
some UK “exportable” benefits such
as Disability Living Allowance from
France. Britons in France could also
have their UK state pensions frozen as
is the case now for pensioners living
out of the EU.
JOBS and QUALIFICATIONS
It would be harder for UK qualifications
to be accepted, as EU mutual recognition
rules would not apply and access to
certain professions may be more limited.
Setting yourself up as self-employed
would typically require much more
Britons may not be able to vote in
local elections in France or be town
councillors. They would no longer be
represented by MEPs. Overnight, almost,
they could be converted from involved
insiders to outsiders who are not allowed
to be involved except in a volunteer,
British children growing up in France
may find that identity becomes a
complex issue; that they are no longer
“Europeans” in the same sense as their
classmates. If there is a reassertion of British
culture in the UK, they may feel even
more confused and dislocated. Nationality
would become of primary importance
once again. If expatriates return to Britain
in any numbers, some rural schools will
see their pupil numbers fall.
It would be harder for students to move
between the two countries. British students
wouldn’t be eligible for the Erasmus
exchange scheme. British students could
not automatically stay on and work in
France after finishing studies. Young
people would see their international mobility
replaced by a life of restriction.
If fewer Britons move to France, and
more Britons return to the UK, there are
likely to be knock on effects on house
prices, the housing market may stagnate
and employment be affected. Fewer old
houses would be lovingly restored.
If large numbers of Britons return home
because of their less favourable status, this
will have an impact on commerce and
jobs in specific communities in France.
Fewer young people and people with
families would be able to move to France.
The expatriate population would age,
reducing the diversity in expatriate life.
Fewer entrepreneurs would provide fewer
“expatriate services”, reducing quality
of life for those who remain in France.
Migrants create links between abroad
and home. While Britons would no
longer participate to the same extent
in French life, French people would
be unable easily to work in the UK
and report back. Britain has a flexible,
creative enterprise culture to share with
the rest of the EU but it would have to
keep it to itself. An unprecedented experiment
in international co-operation
would come to an end and we’d go back
to a state of mutual incomprehension
between France and the UK.
Anyone who wants to live and work in
France would have to apply for a residency
permit. They would have to fulfil
certain conditions: prove a required skill,
have sufficient wealth not to be a burden
on the welfare state etc.
Those with low-level skills and the
self-employed would be at a disadvantage.
There may be a requirement to
speak the language to a certain level and
to demonstrate knowledge of the values
of the French republic. We may even see
Britons applying for asylum in France
in order to get residency. Rule violators
could be detained, deported and forbidden