OPINION: 'Nothing can stop Brexit now, we will all feel foreign on February 1st'

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 13 Dec, 2019 Updated Fri 13 Dec 2019 11:40 CEST
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Boris Johnson's resounding victory means nothing will stop Brexit now, writes columnist John Lichfield. But it's still the biggest blunder the UK has ever made and will leave the hundreds of thousands of Brits across Europe feeling like foreigners on February 1st.

In the name of greater democracy our future has been decided without us. Once again.

I speak of the 1.2 million (at least) British citizens living in the other countries of the European Union. We were almost completely forgotten, and denied a vote, in the Brexit referendum in 2016. 

We were entirely forgotten and many of us were denied a vote in the disgraceful and dispiriting general election campaign which has just ended. 

Nothing now can stop Brexit. We will become foreign on February 1st, or more completely foreign, in countries that many of us have come to regard as or home. 

There was an angry reaction in parts of the UK media last week – and glee in other parts - to one of Boris Johnson’s most crassly xenophobic remarks of the campaign. “For too long”, he told Sky News, people from other parts of the EU have been “able to treat the UK as though it’s basically part of their own country”.

Johnson ignored the huge contributions made by the 3,000,000 or so EU-27 nationals in the UK. He implied, deliberately and mendaciously, that most EU residents in Britain were milking the system.

He made no reference to the fact that  1.2 million UK citizens (at least) have equally come to regard their EU-27 host states as “basically part of their own country”. He ignored the contribution that they – we – have made to our host countries and often also to the UK. This is just as true for the Sun-reading Brexiteer retired on the Costa del Sol as the Europhile British Erasmus student in Denmark or Germany. 

READ MORE: Brits in Europe urged to look at bright side of 'devastating' election result

Johnson also ignored the fact that, under the UK withdrawal agreement that he filched with detailed changes from Theresa May, both the “3,000,000” and the “1.2million” will have a continuing right to live and work in our homes from home.

This will probably come as a surprise to those British people – not all but many - who voted Johnson to “get rid of” the Poles and Romanians and Estonians who are propping up the National Health Service. 

Given his Trump-like attention to detail, it is probable that Johnson has never bothered to read this important text, largely negotiated by Mrs May’s government in March last year. 

We (the 800,000 and more) are lucky in this at least.  Johnson and the hard Brexiteers had nothing to do with the “citizens’ rights” clauses of this text which will go “oven ready” through the House of Commons in the next couple of weeks.

The document, enforceable in both EU and UK law, has many gaps or limitations. It means, however, that we can continue to live in our adopted countries beyond 31 December next year – even if  Johnson’s government fails to reach a long-term trade deal with the EU and even if Britain “crashes out” with no deal on 1 January 2021.

This, for the 1.2 million, is one of the silver-linings in yesterday’s election result. It happened too late for the extremist Brexiteers to impose the most extremist possible Brexit. 

The pressure group British in Europe describes the withdrawal agreement as a “mixture of good news, bad news and unfinished business.”

The good news is, briefly, as follows:

  • If you are, or become, legally resident in any of the EU27 countries before the end of next year, you have an absolute right to stay.
  • If you’ve lived in the host country for less than 5 years, you must be employed, self-sufficient, a student or  family member. This is also the case within the EU now.
  • After five years, you will be entitled to permanent residence without these conditions.
  • You can then move away and come back.
  • Existing, reciprocal health care rights will still apply.

 

The bad news is:

  • Depending on decisions made country by country, you will probably have to take steps to prove that you hold the above rights.
  • Some countries, such as France, will insist that you have  a residency permit (Carte de séjour).  
  • You will not, at present, have a right to move residence from one EU country to another. This may be re-examined in negotiations on the final EU-UK relationship this year. 
  • Some professional qualifications will be automatically recognised. Others not.
  • Non-British, non-EU partners, who are not married or  not civil partners, are not automatically considered “family members”.    

On the whole, however, there is no legal reason why legal UK residents in the EU-27 should think they have to leave their homes. Life may be more complicated for the Brits in Spain, France or elsewhere (numbers unknown) who have always avoided contact with local officialdom. 

There may be another silver lining in the sheer scale of Johnson’s election victory.

It will free his hands to negotiate a sensible, final trade deal with the EU in the next few months. He no longer has to please the hardest of the hard Brexiteers. He can, if he wishes, break a campaign promise and extend the negotiations and the transition period for another year, or more, after the end of next year.

Since agreement on final trade deal will take many, many months, an extension of this kind is now likely. That is good news for UK businesses, big and small, based in the EU-27 which trade with Britain.

For the rest of us – thanks to Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement – it will make little practical difference whether the transition agreement is extended or not.

Any other silver linings?

None that I can think of. It is my belief that Britain is now committed to the most serious blunder that the country has ever made.

 

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