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Brexit survival for Brits in Europe

Ben KnightJune 30, 2016

The Brexit vote has thrown the lives of 1.2 million Britons living in the European Union into uncertainty. What should they do now?

Fahne von Großbritannien mit zerrissener EU-Fahne
Image: picture alliance/chromorange/C. Ohde

The consequences of Britain's vote to leave the European Union are particularly uncertain for Europe's internal migrants - not least the 1.2 million British-born citizens currently living on the continent. This wasn't forgotten in the fraught political aftermath of the vote. During his regular question and answer session in the House of Commons on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was asked by a Conservative Party MP what would happen to the expats - "many of them are elderly and frail, they live on UK pensions."

Could Cameron give assurances that their interests would be defended, the MP wanted to know? The prime minister's answer was a little cagey - after pointing out that no one's status would change until Britain had formally withdrawn from the EU, he referred his "right honorable friend" to a Whitehall "unit" that would work out the details in the future.

There was little else that Cameron could do, because, like everyone else, no one knows what happens now. In all bureaucratic matters, much depends on the negotiations that the UK will have to conduct with the EU in the two years that follow the triggering of Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which regulates a state's withdrawal.

England Parlamentssitzung Premierminister David Cameron
Cameron could not offer any assurancesImage: Reuters/UK Parliament

Different problems

Of course, people in different countries have different statuses. By far the most Brits in Europe have chosen Spain as their new home - 380,000, according to official stats, followed by 250,000 or so in Ireland - but most of them are retired, having worked most of their lives in the UK. This puts them in a more precarious position, according to Jon Worth, a British campaigner, consultant and political blogger who lives in Germany. Brits in Germany, some 105,000 people, are more likely to have it easier - because of both Germany's bureaucracy, and their demographic situation.

"The more solidly integrated you are in the country where you are, the better off you're going to be," Worth told DW. "Most of the Brits in Germany tend to be of working age - a lower percentage than Brits in France or Spain, for example. And they tend to be economically productive. And I think that means the German government is not likely to be especially malevolent to the British in Germany."

Since retirees have not necessarily paid into the system of the country where they live during their working lives, they are more vulnerable to whatever changes a new deal between the UK and their country of residence could bring. And that will depend a lot on how their countries' citizens are treated if they move to the UK.

"The question is: what way does Britain deal with the rest of its negotiations with the rest of the European Union," he said. "Does it try to deal with this en masse, for the whole of the EU in total, or does it try to split off member states, one by one? We don't really know, because there isn't a plan."

Solidarity with Remainers

Various solidarity campaigns have already been set up across Europe. Perhaps the most novel is "Romanians adopt Remainians," which promises that "The good people who voted Remain and share European values deserve to be our relatives. Let's all volunteer so that each Remainian is adopted by a Romanian."

#hugabrit Kampagne
The #HugABrit campaign offered solidarity to euro-friendly BritonsImage: #hugabrit

Meanwhile, the Berlin-based initiative Citizens for Europe has set up a "Legal Clinic" to advise people on how to get citizenship or a residency permit in an EU country, which will include guidance through the administrative labyrinth.

The easiest way to avoid the headache altogether is to apply for citizenship in the country where you live. That problem, however, is different in different EU countries because various nations impose rules on their citizens (Belgian, Greek, and Luxembourg citizens, for example, are obliged to vote in elections).

For expats in Germany, though, there are "no noticeable downsides in a practical sense" to becoming German, according to Worth. "I would advocate very strongly that they make that application by July 2018," he said, that being the earliest date that Britain could formally withdraw from the EU. "If you can, do it."

According to German citizenship law, you can become German if you have lived in Germany for eight years (reduced to six if you have taken "special integration measures"), you can earn your own living, and can speak German. Though it does get more complicated if you want to keep your British nationality - German authorities are not keen on dual nationality. "German with any other EU nationality is allowed," said Worth. "But if UK leaves EU will it still be? We don't know. But once you have dual nationality it cannot be revoked. So this is why it's important to do it before UK legally leaves the EU. "

"I cannot see that Germany is going to pro-actively initially go out of its way to stop dual nationality, at least not without having talked about those issues at European Union level," he said. "They might make the deal hard in Brussels for the British state, but that's a different thing."