Ahead of Brexit, UK citizens living in the Netherlands applied to court to have their rights as EU citizens recognized and protected. The court has passed their queries on to the European Court of Justice.
Judges at the Amsterdam District Court have asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to answer two questions on the status of British citizens living in the Netherlands after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019.
The questions are: "Does Brexit mean that Britons automatically lose their European citizenship or do they maintain their rights, and if so, under what conditions?" lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm said on behalf of his British clients on Wednesday.
Five British expatriates living in the Netherlands and the organizations Brexpats and the Commercial Anglo Dutch Society took their case to court. They claimed that expats have independent rights as EU citizens, over and above being citizens of any specific EU member country and therefore their legal rights should remain after Brexit. They argued that their rights, including freedom of movement, should be protected by the Dutch government, even after Britain leaves the bloc.
One of the plaintiffs, Stephen Huyton, has lived in the Netherlands for 24 years. He said the plaintiffs had asked the Dutch judges to refer their case to the European court for clarification as to what exactly being a European citizen means.
Judge Floris Bakels gave a written verdict issued by the Amsterdam District Court on Wednesday stating, "We refer the questions to the European Court of Justice."
"The essence of a democratic constitutional state is that the rights and interests of minorities are protected as much as possible," he added.
A spanner in Brexit talks?
Huyton said he was "shocked and delighted" with the decision, which he admitted "could throw a spanner in the current Brexit negotiations."
"This case intends to give us clarity," Huyton added, "not only to the 46,000 Britons living in The Netherlands, but also to the million other British citizens living in mainland Europe."
No full agreement has been made by negotiators for the EU and for Britain over the terms of Brexit for EU citizens in Britain or British citizens in Europe.
In a written reaction, the British government said, "We have secured a deal that will safeguard the rights of UK nationals living in the European Union, so that they can continue living their lives broadly as they do now." However, exactly what the safeguards are remains unclear.
Bakels said in his ruling that "there has to be more clarity about the consequences of Brexit for EU citizenship." He gave lawyers a week to comment on the decision and to add any other preliminary questions to be put to the ECJ.
Lawyer Thijm said British citizens currently have no idea what Brexit means for them: "Are you an EU citizen for life or can your citizenship be taken away from you? That is the fundamental question that will be put forward to the European Court."
According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, any person who is a citizen of an EU nation is automatically also an EU citizen. EU citizenship grants rights including the ability to move, work and live freely within the bloc.
It wasn't immediately clear when the European Court of Justice would deliver answers to the questions.
jm/sms (AP, AFP)