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Uncertain future for expats

Samira Shackle, LondonJune 11, 2016

The 1.2 million British people residing in other European states face an uncertain future in the event of Brexit. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Großbritannien West Yorkshire Protest zu Brexit
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/B. Stevens

On June 23, Britain will go to the polls to decide whether it will remain part of the EU. For months now, the debate in the UK has focused on immigration. There are around 3 million EU-born people in the UK, including around 2 million workers. The Vote Leave campaign has focused on the fact that Britain's relatively strong economy has led to an uncontrolled influx of workers from elsewhere in Europe.

But what about the other immigration debate? There are currently 1.2 million British citizens living in European countries, taking advantage of the right to free movement and employment across the 27 EU member states. Most British expats in Europe are either young economic migrants working in European countries, or pensioners retiring to warmer climes. Ireland is host to the largest number of British citizens in Europe, closely followed by Spain, where whole areas are largely populated by British retirees. What will happen to these people if the UK leaves the EU?

Eben Marks is a British citizen who recently moved to Berlin with his partner. He plans to vote by proxy to remain in the EU. "At this point I'm not sure what leaving would mean," he told DW. "It depends on what settlement the UK reaches with the EU, but if a post-leave government wanted to restrict the number of foreign citizens living in the UK then EU countries might return the favor. As a new resident of Germany without many roots here yet, that worries me."

man standing in front of truck
It would make Boris' day, but many expats are worried about their future should the UK vote to leaveImage: Reuters/P. Nicholls

Lack of clarity

Politicians have hardly been reassuring. The Europe minister, David Lidington, warned recently that a British exit would see "everything we take for granted about access to the single market" questioned, including "the right of British citizens to go and live in Spain or France." Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has argued that a withdrawal would see British citizens living in EU countries "becoming illegal immigrants overnight" if Britain didn't maintain some form of free movement after leaving the EU. Given that free movement and unfettered immigration from Europe is one of the driving issues, it seems unlikely that this would be preserved.

Teresa Litherland is a British retiree who has lived in Cyprus for nearly 12 years. She is concerned about what a Brexit might mean. "Will ex-pat pensioners living in the EU still be entitled to the annual increase in the state pension? What about access to what passes for a health service here? We have permanent residency here in Cyprus on the basis of our being citizens of an EU country - could it be withdrawn?"

The 1969 Vienna Convention guarantees Acquired Rights, meaning that when a treaty is ended this does not affect rights or obligations created previously. This should, in theory, mean that in the event of Brexit, host countries should not immediately move to eject their British residents (and vice versa, that Britain could not deport its European population). However, lawyers point out that other rights, such as healthcare, benefits, and pensions, are not guaranteed by this convention, even if it does guarantee the basic right to stay in the country. In a paper on the risks of Brexit published in February, the British government acknowledged that the right to a pension or to access healthcare in a host country cannot be guaranteed.

Imogen Roy, 26, lives in Paris where she works for Eurostar. "I'm very alarmed on a personal and professional level. I benefit hugely from the right to work and move freely in Europe, a huge privilege compared to the struggles I see my non-EU national friends go through to be able to work and contribute taxes in France," she told DW. "I love to travel, visa-free, and benefiting from free emergency healthcare when abroad thanks to the EU health insurance scheme makes that a lot less stressful."

a bus with crowd of people outside photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Expats are by no means 100 percent behind Brussels but say that reform rather than leaving is the way to goImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tallis

Divided opinions

Apart from those who have been living overseas for over 15 years, British expats have the right to vote on 23 June. There is no reliable polling data available, but it is broadly assumed that British citizens residing in other European countries are more likely to vote for Britain to remain. "I think the EU has an important role to play in encouraging peaceful cooperation between countries," says Marks. "I have my reservations about aspects of its governance and politics but for me the answer is reform rather than leaving."

These views are not shared across the board, perhaps in part because of the significant number of older people living in countries such as Spain and Cyprus: polls have consistently shown that those from the older generation are more likely to vote to leave. "I will be voting in the referendum and will probably vote in, but with a heavy heart," Litherland told DW. "It's a hugely wasteful institution, moving the entire parliament to Strasbourg once a month being a case in point. My main issue with the EU is the pressure for political union; it's not what people signed up to in 1973."