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BREXIT

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead

As citizens' rights coalition group British in Europe winds down, its co-chair Jane Golding tells The Local of the problems that still lie ahead for UK nationals and whether any good at all came out of Brexit for Brits living in the EU.

Members of British in Europe and the3million including co-chair Jane Golding (centre) meet with the EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: British in Europe.

In the winter of 2017, as most Britons living in Europe were still reeling from the shock result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, a small number of individuals and groups came together united by a single aim.

Those ordinary people, who formed the coalition of citizens’ rights groups that became British in Europe, had one objective in mind; to ensure the impact and trauma of the UK’s divorce from the EU did not ruin the lives of an estimated 1.2 million Brits living across the EU.

They were based in all corners of the EU from Berlin to Brussels, central Italy, rural France and the Spanish coast and were “driven by a rage” to protect the rights given to them as EU citizens. 

After the referendum – which many Britons in the EU were barred from voting in – those rights to live, work and build a family in an EU country were under real threat. 

But after five years of relentless campaigning, most of those rights have been protected and whilst things are not quite as straightforward as before most of the hundreds of thousands of British citizens living in the EU have been able to continue their lives pretty much as before.

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

(Jane Golding speaking at a joint British in Europe/the3million rally in London”. Photo: British in Europe.)
 
‘We’d like to think we made a difference’

That’s thanks in no small way to the endless hours of work, research, lobbying and online meetings carried out by the volunteers at British in Europe and the network of British citizens’ rights groups across Europe they represented.

“We like to think that what we’ve done has made a real difference to the lives of all of these people who had their EU citizenship rights removed,” Golding tells The Local as she reflects on the group’s achievements but also what lies ahead.

“We didn’t take this wholesale removal of our rights sitting down and we did fight to make our voices heard, to get the message out there that what was being done as a result of Brexit was not OK.

“In the end the majority of the rights of UK citizens living in the EU host countries were safeguarded in their host country.”

The right to remain, work and continue to access healthcare or benefits was ensured, whilst British in Europe successfully persuaded the UK government to extend the grace period for when Britons can move back with their EU family as well as lobbying the government to release €3 million in funding to help Britons secure their post Brexit status in Europe.

There were rights that were lost however, such as the right for Britons to be able to continue to move around the EU rather than being landlocked in the country they were in at the time of Brexit or EU-wide recognition of professional qualifications.

The problems that lie ahead for Britons

But what will worry Britons in Europe is that Golding, who described their work as “painstaking legal-based advocacy”, and the rest of the British in Europe team are winding up at the end of February.

There was a will to continue but a lack of funding – an estimated €200,000 a year would have been needed – meant the volunteers were simply unable to commit long term.

Luckily many online support groups for UK citizens will still active, including groups like British in Germany and Remain in France Together, but the concern now for Britons is who will stick up for their rights at the highest level in UK and Europe? Who will give evidence to select committees in Westminster? Who will push their case at the European parliament? Who will work closely with the European Commission and governments around EU nations to ensure that Brexit does not ruin lives in the future? 

READ ALSO: How many Britons in EU acquired post-Brexit residency and how many were rejected?

“It’s a worry,” says Golding. “Our concern is that unlike for EU citizens in the UK there is no independent monitoring authority for citizens’ rights. There are some very good people working on citizens’ rights issues in the European Commission but there are not huge resources for these tasks and there’ll no longer be a coordinating EU-wide group like ours to point to issues and systemic problems.”

One of Golding’s last tasks as co-chair of British in Europe was to give evidence to the joint EU/UK Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights, which was set up to keep a check on whether the citizens’ rights aspect of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was being properly enforced.

‘Those without cards face serious problems’

Last month the Committee released figures that revealed that some some 497,100 Britons in the EU out of an estimated 1.093 million have acquired a post-Brexit residence status – although this doesn’t tell the full story because Britons living in many EU countries have not been obliged to apply for a post Brexit residence permit.

EU countries could choose whether to grant post-Brexit residence status under a constitutive system (applicants had to apply directly to government agencies to be awarded residence status), or a declaratory system (applicants’ rights were not dependent on a government decision).

Golding says it’s clearly a worry that tens of thousands of British citizens had not acquired cards even if it wasn’t obligatory to do so.

“Just how many people out there who still haven’t been reached? In declaratory countries there are still large numbers of people who haven’t registered for their status. That’s a real concern,” she says.

“Then there’s the issue of the delays in receiving cards and the problems that causes, such as accessing services and travel issues. That will be a problem until all the cards are issued and we are nowhere near that in some countries yet.”

“The problem is for most institutions you need to have a card to engage with them on a daily basis and if you haven’t yet got a card then you are a bit stuck – it’s a serious problem.

“When you are accessing employment, health services, social security, we’ve had cases in Germany where people are applying for mortgages, you don’t have to have the card but in some cases it makes your life really difficult if you don’t.”

Other issues include why some residents have been given temporary residence – for five years – when they should have been given permanent residence.

How can you prove you are absent?

A temporary residency status means they are constrained by tighter rules over how long they can leave the country without running the risk of losing residency. 

Those with permanent residency can leave for up to five years without losing residency and those with temporary residence can leave for 6 months (12 months in certain exceptional cases) but the rules are not clear for example over how to prove when the people officially left a country.

Golding says people thinking of leaving their host country need to get advice. She warns that cases will emerge over the next few years – until those with temporary residence have gained permanent residency – to come of people losing residency and those cases may well end up in European courts.

In other words it appears obvious British citizens will still need the kind of support British in Europe has offered, but they won’t be able to call upon it.

The hope is that thanks to British in Europe and the many other citizens’ rights groups that continue to exist in social media groups around Europe, British citizens are better armed and informed to tackle what problems lie ahead.

‘You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU’

And perhaps a more mobilised and united community of British citizens is the only good thing to have emerged out of Brexit for those most affected by it.

“I think what’s come out of this is a much more cohesive force, we’ve created a political force. UK citizens in the EU have got a voice in the political process we didn’t have before. You can now talk of a British diaspora in the EU which you couldn’t before,” she said.

And after five years of blood sweat and tears has she herself got over Brexit?

“It’s been an extremely positive experience standing together to defend our rights in the face of something that was, at the time, really very depressing.

“At the time of the referendum we all went through a period of mourning and it’s also caused so many practical problems.”

Like many, Golding took German citizenship to ensure she maintained freedom of movement which she needed for work and requalified as a German lawyer.

“Once you have done these things it at least makes you feel you have secured your livelihood going forward and the position where you live and in that way you can reach some kind of peace,” she said.

Member comments

  1. The EU only understands what they call leverage . Consequently, so long as they want to see the rights of 6 million EU citizens protected in the UK, they’ll be mindful of Brit rights in Europe.

  2. I think a very big thank you is called for to all those who worked so hard and so effectively. Just so that they know.
    Victor peel

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TRAVEL NEWS

Summer travel between Spain and the UK: What can I not pack in my suitcase?

If you're travelling between Spain and the UK this summer and want to take some of your favourite treats with you, here's what you should know about the food and drink rules post-Brexit so you don't get caught out by customs.

Flying to the UK from Spain

For those flying to the UK from Spain, the rules are relatively lax.

Note, if you’re spending the summer in Northern Ireland there are different rules on food and animal products. Find them here. 

You can bring the following products from Spain into the UK without worrying about any restrictions:

  • bread, but not sandwiches filled with meat or dairy products
  • cakes without fresh cream
  • biscuits
  • chocolate and confectionery, but not those made with unprocessed dairy ingredients
  • pasta and noodles, but not if mixed or filled with meat or meat products
  • packaged soup, stocks and flavourings
  • processed and packaged plant products, such as packaged salads and frozen plant material
  • food supplements containing small amounts of an animal product, such as fish oil capsules

Meat, dairy, fish and animal products

If, like many of us, you have friends and family already putting in their orders for stocks of jamón serrano, know that the rules on bringing meat, dairy, fish and other animal products into the UK are relatively relaxed. You can bring in meat, fish, dairy and other animal products as long as they’re from the EU, so your jamón and Manchego cheese are safe. 

You will still be able to bring cured Spanish ham from Spain to the UK. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)
 

Alcohol allowance

For many, the big one, but there are some limits on how much booze you can bring in from Spain and the EU more generally. How much you can bring depends on the type of alcohol, so get up to speed on the limits and make sure your favourite Rioja and Cava aren’t taken off you or heavily taxed:

Limits:

  • beer – 42 litres
  • still wine – 18 litres
  • spirits and other liquors over 22 percent alcohol – 4 litres
  • sparkling wine, fortified wine (port, sherry etc) and other alcoholic drinks up to 22 percent alcohol (not including beer or still wine) – 9 litres

It’s worth knowing that you can split your allowance, for example you could bring 4.5 litres of fortified wine and 2 litres of spirits (both half of your allowance).

Flying into Spain from the UK

While British borders are laid back when it comes to travelling with food and drink, the rules are much tougher when entering the EU from the UK.

Most importantly, tea bags – longed for by Brits the world over – are allowed. Marmite, which is vegan, is also fine to bring but Bovril, which contains beef stock, is not.

Travellers arriving in the EU from Britain can, according to the European Travel Retail Confederation (ETRC), bring the following quantities of alcohol, so if you fancy a British tipple in Spain over the summer such as Pimm’s it is possible, within reason: 4 litres of still wine and 16 litres of beer, 1 litre of spirits, or 2 litres of sparkling or fortified wine.

If you arrive in the EU from a non-EU country, you cannot bring any meat or dairy products with you. That means no Wensleydale, no Cornish Brie in your ploughman’s lunch and no British bacon to enjoy in Spain for English breakfast fry-ups.

British cheese for your Ploughman’s lunch is not allowed. Photo: Glammmur / WikiCommons

The EU’s strict rules mean that all imports of animal-derived products technically come under these rules, so even your custard powder to make rhubarb fool or bars of your favourite chocolate are now banned, because of the milk.

Be aware, however Spanish customs do not always check your suitcase, so you may be able to get away with bringing in a small packaged item such as a chocolate bar, without it being confiscated. 

Similarly, if you’re planning on asking a friend or family member to bring you over some sweets, cakes, or other home comforts, be aware that the ban includes all products that contain any meat or dairy as an ingredient – which includes items like chocolate, fudge, and some sweets (because of the gelatine.)

You are allowed to bring a small quantity of fruit and vegetables as well as eggs, some egg products, and honey. Restricted quantities of fish or fish products are also allowed: eviscerated fresh fish products (gutted, with all the organs removed), and processed fishery products are allowed up to 20 kg or 1 fish, so you can enjoy some Scottish smoked salmon in Spain over the summer if you want.

If you’re travelling with kids, note that powdered infant milk, infant food and specifically required medical foods are allowed up to 2kg, as is the case for pet foods. 

Clotted cream for cream teas won’t be allowed to be brought into Spain. Photo: Tuxraider reloaded / WikiCommons

This means that even the classic British summertime favourites such as sausage rolls, scotch eggs, packaged trifle and clotted cream for your cream tea will not be allowed because of the meat and dairy they contain.

It is worth noting that these strict EU rules also apply to sending products by post, so if you were hoping to get around the newly applicable legislation by having someone send you a delivery some Devon fudge, they will probably be intercepted and confiscated by Spain’s postal service, unfortunately. 

READ ALSO: Are there limits on bringing medicines into Spain?

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