How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe

The trauma of Brexit and the fight to make sure the UK's divorce from the EU does not ruin the lives of 1.2 million Brits living across the EU has brought people together both online and in person. This is the story of how the 'citizen of nowhere network' came together.

How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe
Jane Golding (holding banner on left) and Kathryn Dobson (holding banner in centre) at the People's March in London in 2018. Photo: British in Europe.

This is Part Three of the story on how British in Europe, the grassroots civil society movement, was born. You can read Part One and Part Two below. 

Part One – How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens

Part Two – Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

The unprecedented campaign for citizens rights by British volunteers across Europe has built bridges from one community to another in individual EU countries and across the continent.

Thousands have come together both in person and online.

Dozens of Facebook groups founded and run by volunteers have united thousands of British citizens left shocked and anxious after the referendum.

While these groups, such as Bremain in Spain and Remain in France Together, are, as their name suggests, Remainer-focused, they have brought and bring together people from all walks of life and even people who voted Leave.

“One of the only positives of Brexit is that I have met some fantastic people across Europe,” the co-chair of umbrella group British in Europe Fiona Godfrey says.

“I have seen people who have nothing to do with politics get involved. The knock on effect will be good for them and their communities,” adds Godfrey. Almost all the campaigners involved with British in Europe are pro-European and ultimately anti Brexit.

Kalba Meadows, who leads the 11,000 strong Remain in France Together (RIFT) confirms the irony that “none of us would have met each other if it weren’t for Brexit.”

Many of the online forums serve as a virtual parliament, court and advice clinic wrapped into one for thousands of upset UK nationals in Europe, many of whom were unable to vote in the referendum.

Members of British in Europe meet with French senator Olivier Cadic and Nicolas Hatton, the head of the3Million.

Clarissa Killwick, a volunteer with Brexpats Hear Our Voice and British in Italy, agrees that the connections made via these online groups are one of the major highlights of her work.

“It is my citizen of nowhere network,” says Killwick, a Brit living in northern Italy, referring to Theresa May's famous jibe against people who believe they are global citizens. “I feel reconnected.”

From the Baltics to Malta, via Czech Republic, Sweden, Portugal and the EU’s major economies, British in Europe is now made up of 25 groups across European states.

'British in the Baltics' is the latest group, says Debra Williams, British in Europe’s outreach coordinator and founder of advocacy group Brexpats Hear Our Voice.

The biggest challenges came in “countries where there wasn’t any coverage,” Williams says.

Groups were started in places British in Europe lacked a footprint in thanks to social media connections, adds Williams. “Facebook was absolutely key in creating connections,” she says.

Williams, formerly with the RAF and an air traffic controller, says her job involves keeping the groups informed about the steering committee’s key policies.

Kathryn Dobson, a British journalist in southwest France who manages social media for British in Europe, joined the movement out of concerns for her children.

“Everybody was talking about the issue of Brits in Europe being one about pensioners when I could see from my own situation that we needed to be talking about families and young people,” says Dobson, who lives in Vienne, western France.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Where do Brits in France now stand if there's a no-deal Brexit?

“There was a danger that the whole story was not being told,” she says, highlighting how at the time she suspected what is now confirmed by statistics: that 80 per cent of Brits in Europe are of working age, defying the stereotype that Brits in Europe are mainly pensioners.

RIFT founder Kalba Meadows (holding post card on left) British in Europe co-chair Jane Golding (centre) and the3million CEO Nicolas Hatton (holding postcard on right) deliver a letter to the British PM's office at 10 Downing Street in November 2018. Photo: British in Europe. 

READ ALSO:  Could this EU Green Card save freedom of movement for Britons in Europe?

As the rollercoaster Brexit process unfolded, British in Europe’s strength has been the ability to adapt and stay relevant.

In individual member states, their efforts have offered thousands of Brits some respite in the face of continued uncertainty.

Following intensive lobbying efforts by British in Europe members, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark have all created contingency plans for Brits in the event that the current Brexit deal collapses and the UK should exit the EU without an agreement.

READ ALSO: No-deal Brexit: Country by country guide to how the rights of Britons will be affected

These contingency plans would continue to guarantee certain key rights for Brits living in those countries, although in certain countries like France, it all depends on Britain securing the rights of French citizens.

In Germany alone, Jane Golding, Daniel Tetlow and other British in Germany members held eight meetings with Germany’s Brexit coordinators at the Federal German Foreign Office. Similar pressure has been placed on governments across the EU.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Berlin's Brexit registering process

“Brexit is crap but the relationships developed with MEPs, British in Europe and unlikely champions across the EU is the best bit,” says the organisation’s spokeswoman, Brussels-based Laura Shields.

“I’m now connected with caterers in the Alps, someone who runs a children’s company in Budapest, winemakers in the south of France. I would never have met these people if it hadn’t been for the movement,” Shields said.

Many of these groups serve as informal therapy forums and safe havens for vulnerable Brits to express their concerns about Brexit. But the groups have also helped outline and bring together a British diaspora in Europe.

READ ALSO: How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe

“It’s a resource for Britain,” says author Giles Tremlett, who has been based in Madrid for the last 25 years. “We’re not represented in parliament in the same way expatriates are represented in France or Italy,” says Tremlett, a key middleman who helped establish British in Europe in late 2016. 

While French citizens in the UK have Senator Olivier Cadic to represent them, Italian citizens abroad are looked after by Luigi Vignali, director general for Italian citizens abroad at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affair. UK nationals in Europe have no equivalent.

“British in Europe is filling that role,” says Tremlett.

READ MORE: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights 

Without doubt one of the highlights of the coming together was on October 20th last year when protesters set off from across all parts of Europe to join the 700,000 marching on London calling for a People's Vote.

Joining the march in London was also a show of solidarity by British in Europe with EU Citizens in the UK, another cross-border bond that has been forged as a result of the uncertainty and fears over Brexit.

“The campaign and advocacy group British in Europe has worked hand in hand with our counterpart the3million for two years now, and our friendship and collaboration has been one of the few positives to come out of Brexit,” RIFT's Kalba Meadows told The Local at the time.

“We'll be meeting and marching together as The 5 Million to celebrate that friendship as well as our shared European-ness.”

The campaigning, the lobbying, the marching  and the sharing of experiences will likely continue for months if not years to come, but at least Britons in Europe have a community ready for battle.




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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”