INTERVIEW: ‘A lot of people think Brexit is done, but it’s not for Brits in Europe’

A new project from citizens campaign group British in Europe aims to empower Brits in the EU to advocate for their post-Brexit rights. The Local spoke to BiE chair Jane Golding about the problems British citizens face in Europe and why the project is still needed.

An EU and British flag fly outside the UK parliament in Westminster, London.
An EU and British flag fly outside the UK parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP

In the early days of 2021, after the United Kingdom had left the EU and completed the final stage of Brexit, many British citizens returned to their home countries in Europe only to face a grilling at the border. 

Though the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) technically guaranteed their right to live and work in the countries they’d settled in before Brexit, there was widespread confusion about these fundamental rights and many were treated like new arrivals. 

Over time, the chaos at the airports subsided as border officials and airlines were given clearer guidance on the treatment of Brits. But three years later, a number of Brits who live on the continent still face problems when it comes to proving their post-Brexit rights.

This was the reason campaign group British in Europe decided to set up their new EU-funded ICE project. Starting this year in March, it aims to build valuable connections between UK citizens abroad and mentor the next generation of civil rights advocates around the continent. The acronym stands for ‘Inform, Empower, Connect’ and the project’s organisers describe it as “the first project of its kind”. 

READ ALSO: Hundreds of Britons across Europe given orders to leave

“It’s a completely innovative project – especially the fact that it’s across so many countries,” Jane Golding, chair of British in Europe and one of the project’s founders, told The Local.

Bringing together groups from 11 EU member states, the project aims to train up volunteers to understand both the Withdrawal Agreement and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as learning skills like advocacy and communication, using real-life civil rights cases that are referred to British in Europe.

“The ultimate goal is to amplify the messages across the wider group,” said Golding. “You start with the volunteers, they go back to their groups, then the people that we train, they go back and train people. Then they pass on that knowledge to the wider groups, on their Facebook accounts and through social media, and hopefully it all snowballs, not just in their countries but across the EU.” 

READ ALSO: What Brits in Europe need to know about UK’s new minimum income rules

‘Far-reaching repercussions’

So many years after Brexit, it’s hard to believe that there’s still a need for a project like ICE that empowers Brits to protect their rights. Indeed, the future of groups like British in Europe and regional groups like British in Germany and Spain-based group EuroCitizens felt uncertain just a year or two ago. 

But Golding says there are still serious issues cropping up for Brits in several countries around Europe – they just have a different quality to the problems that arose at the start.

“In some ways it’s needed even more because as we predicted right at the beginning, at the first stage of implementation, you’ve got the more routine cases,” she explained.

“What we’re seeing now is not as many cases, but when the cases come up, they’re complex. They can have such far-reaching repercussions on people’s lives. And of course, memories start to fade. A lot of people think Brexit is already done, but it’s not.”

Volunteers in British in Europe ICE project

The volunteers of the British in Europe ICE project pose for a photo at the kick-off meeting in Brussels on May 21st, 2024. Photo courtesy of British In Europe

Though the rights set out in the Withdrawal Agreement apply across the continent, different countries have taken different approaches to implementing them.

That means that while in Germany, for example, UK citizens simply had to declare that they lived in the country, people in neighbouring Denmark had to apply for their rights. 

This led to a notorious situation in Denmark in which as many as 2,000 Brits were threatened with deportation after not applying in time or completing the right application process. According to Golding, this had a lot to do with the fact that people who arrived in 2020 weren’t given the same information as other UK migrants who arrived before. 

In Sweden, meanwhile, the situation is still difficult for many Brits who lived there prior to Brexit.

“There have been issues with an anomalously high numbers of refusals compared to other countries, and they seem to be taking a very strict approach on late applications,” Golding explained. 

READ ALSO: Brits in Sweden still in limbo years after Brexit deadline

Portugal has been another difficult case. Although the country opted for a declaratory system where Brits could simply exchange old residence documents for a new ID card after Brexit, reports suggest that the authorities have taken years to issue these cards, leaving many of the some 34,000 Brits in the country in limbo.

“While people are still waiting to have their status confirmed and have their card in their hand, it’s difficult to access a whole range of services, like health services, or applying for jobs or dealing with the authorities, or even going to the bank,” Golding said. “All of these problems just affect people’s lives.”

A French border guard checks a passport at the border

A French border guard checks a passport at the border. Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP

There are also concerns about the EU’s new exit and entry system (EES), due to come into force in October, which is based on biometric documentation.

“We still do not have clear data on how many people in declaratory countries like Germany, where it wasn’t compulsory to apply for the card, don’t actually have a card,” Golding said. “How is that going to play out if it’s a document-based digitalised system?”

READ ALSO: How Europe’s new EES border checks will impact flight passengers

A lack of support

In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, funding from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was still available to support NGOs in Europe helping Brits with their migration and civil rights issues. But that temporary funding soon expired, leaving groups like British in Europe largely on their own.

“The whole point is people’s lives change at very different paces,” Golding said. “And now this project is really going to start to pick up some of those cases and report on those issues, which is really crucial and exciting for the precedent that it sets, and it’s very clearly necessary still, because people don’t just sort their lives in the 18 months that the FCDO chose to supply that funding.”

This feeling of being left alone and increasingly isolated from the UK is one that many Brits in Europe have felt in the aftermath of Brexit. But the upcoming UK election on July 4th could be a game-changer.

This time, following a change in the law, Brits who have lived abroad for more than 15 years will be able to vote for the first time.

Polling station in the UK

A polling station in the UK. Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

When it comes to the election, the message from British in Europe is clear: “Make your voice count now, make your vote count, make sure you use it,” Golding said. 

With the June 18th registration deadline fast approaching, BiE is advising UK citizens abroad to apply for a proxy vote as soon as possible, rather than relying on a postal vote from abroad. Since the 15-year rule was abolished on January 16th, more than 100,000 British citizens have registered to vote, according to official statistics. It is unclear how many were registered before the change in the law. 

READ ALSO: How Brits living in Europe can register to vote for UK election

With an estimated 4.7 million Brits currently living abroad – 1.3 million of whom are in the EU – this could have a significant impact on the electoral landscape, Golding says. But most significantly, the change is creating a feeling of connection and belonging that wasn’t there before.

Nurturing this sense of belonging is one of the main goals of ICE.

With these bridges being built, British in Europe hopes to create a network of support that spans across borders.

“Now we’ve met. We’re going to meet,” said Golding. “We know we’re going to meet again in Berlin in October and then we’ll meet again in the new year in 2025 as well. It means a huge amount because even British in Europe, our steering team, we’ve only met physically three times.”

This opens up the possibility of people sharing their knowledge from country to country, Golding explained.

“There is crossover and the reassurance of having that EU wide view and knowing that you’re not alone and knowing that in this country, we managed to get this solution,” she said. “And then you can go back and say to the authorities in your country, well, in that country they did that – all of that helps. It’s really good.”

Member comments

  1. I arrived in time to sign contracts for the purchase of my French home just before the end of the transition period. The first few months were a trial. Arranging contracts with utilility suppliers, internet and phone, insurances, applying for a Carte de Sejour, Carte Vitale etc and getting Covid jabbed, buying a car. Can’t say it was easy but I had set myself a pretty big task. And at no point did French beuracracy make it more difficiult. On the contrary.

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Will wealthy people really ‘flee Switzerland’ over inheritance tax proposals?

Switzerland is home to an estimated 110 billionaires, and even more multi-millionaires — high numbers for such a small nation. So will a new proposal by a left-wing party really prompt them to leave the country?

Will wealthy people really ‘flee Switzerland' over inheritance tax proposals?

Whether because of its comparatively low tax rates or its famous economic and political stability, Switzerland has been a magnet for super rich people from many lands for decades.

READ ALSO: The Swiss communities where you’re more likely to meet a millionaire

In fact, even though obtaining residency rights for mere mortals from outside the EU and EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) is next to impossible, the (very) rich ones can obtain the so-called ‘golden visa’ and settle in Switzerland for good.

READ ALSO: How wealthy foreigners can ‘buy’ Swiss residency 

However, some are now reportedly considering leaving the country because of a new proposal from a left-wing group.

What is happening?

The Socialist Youth, a wing of the Social Democratic Party, collected enough signatures to launch an initiative calling for a 50-percent inheritance tax to be imposed on those whose assets exceed 50 million francs.

This would be levied by the federal government in addition to cantonal or municipal inheritance taxes.

Under the Socialist Youth’s proposal, the proceeds of this windfall would be used for environmental causes and climate control measures.

The date for this issue to be brought to the ballot box is not yet set – more about this below.

What’s the reaction?

Rich people the world over are notorious for not reacting well to the idea that they might have to – shock – pay tax, and the Swiss proposal is no exception.

According to Michèle Blöchliger, an MP from Nidwalden, the canton where many of the ultra-rich foreigners live, “the first departures have already taken place.” 

In Zurich too, some wealthy individuals are “planning to move” out of the country if these measures are implemented, MP Ernst Stocker told the Swiss media.

While left-wingers in the parliament fully support this initiative, MPs from other parties are alarmed about its potential consequences.

“Switzerland clearly needs wealthy people, as more than 50 percent of the tax revenue comes from the super rich,” said Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter, who represents the Centre Party in the parliament.

“If we drive out individuals with strong fiscal capacity through radical laws, finances will ultimately have to come from the middle class,” she added.

Another MP, Thierry Burkart from the Liberal-Radical party agrees:  “This move can inflict considerable damage” on Switzerland, he said.

Will this proposal really become law?

There are quite a few steps to go through first. The Young Socialists collected 109,988 signatures (100,000 are needed for a citizen-driven initiative) and submitted them to the Federal Chancellery for verification in March.

The next step is a parliamentary consultation and recommendation, both of which are likely to last until 2025 or even later.

So any vote would likely not take place before 2026 – and then of course it would need to gain a majority backing.

So those rich folks who, according to MP Michèle Blöchliger, have already left might have have been just a little premature.