What now for 1.2 million Brits in the EU? The only certainty is uncertainty

Some 250,000 UK ex-pats are living in Ireland

Brexit, British ex-pats, Spain, Ireland, referendum, options, British Ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, EU migration,

A British passport sits on top of Euro bank notes | Image: Tim Goode / EMPICS Entertainment

Ireland has the second highest number of British ex-pats in Europe, after Spain.

There were an estimated 1.2 million UK-born people living in other EU countries in 2015, according to data from the United Nations.

Most of them live in Spain, Ireland and France.

Spain hosts the largest group at an estimated 310,000. Ireland is second with some 250,000, and France third with 190,000.

Those 1.2 million people place the UK fifth among EU countries for the size of their expat population in other EU member states.

The number of British people living abroad is also increasing.

According to Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact-checking charity, in the year to September 2015 around 40,000 more British nationals left the UK to live abroad than came back.

But what happens now post Brexit: Will they be told to leave? Will they get a bi-lateral deal?

Following the referendum result which saw the UK vote to leave the EU, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I would also reassure Brits living in European countries, and European citizens living here, that there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances.

“There will be no initial change in the way our people can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold,” he added.

Source: fullfact.org

So what are the options as they stand?

  • The UK could seek to secure bilateral agreements with individual states, but negotiations could be difficult and protracted
  • Another possibility is that UK citizens would continue to be allowed to live in the EU on the same basis after Britain’s exit (and vice versa), if they had a ‘right to reside’ at the time
  • The UK could also try to remain in the European Economic Area as an alternative to EU membership, like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein
  • Alternatively, the UK could seek a single agreement with the EU/EEA as a whole

But these last two options would mean that EU free movement laws would continue to influence UK immigration controls – something the Leave camp wanted to see changed.

“Withdrawal might also have implications for UK nationals living in other EU/EEA countries, since Member States would be free to impose corresponding restrictions on entitlement to their benefits,” a briefing document from the House of Commons Library found.

In the briefing document from February, entitled ‘Parliament EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’, it found that: “UK withdrawal from the EU could have significant implications both for EU/EEA nationals living in or wishing to move to the UK, and for UK expatriates elsewhere in the EU/EEA and those considering moving abroad.”

But if EU countries applied their immigration rules rigidly, Professor Steve Peers of the University of Essex suggests there would again be advantages to being a resident there for more than five years.

“Those UK citizens who were long-term residents in a member state (legal residence for more than five years) could apply for long-term resident status under EU law,” he says.

This is a status granted to non-EU citizens who have lived legally in an EU country for some time.

But Professor Peers says that "as compared to obtaining permanent residence status as an EU citizen, there are more conditions attached to obtaining such status, and fewer benefits."

'Special status' for Brits in Ireland

It is also worth noting that British people living in Ireland could be less affected by this than others (e.g. those living in Spain or France).

British citizens are not considered ‘non-nationals’ for the purpose of Irish immigration law - just as the 380,000 Irish people in the UK are not considered to be from a foreign country under UK law.

"This reflects a system going back long before the UK and Ireland joined the EU, although it’s possible that this regime might also be reconsidered if the UK were no longer a member", according to Professor Bernard Ryan of the University of Leicester.

English language Spanish-based publication thelocal.es says: “While no one will be asked to move home or even be made to apply for a visa or residency permit just yet, what is certain is that uncertainty will reign for the next two years, at least.”

“Given so many Brits live in Spain and so many Spanish live in London it is likely the two countries will come to some sort of deal to maintain the status quo,” it claims.

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Following the result, on June 24th, British Ambassador to Spain Simon Manley said nothing has changed – yet.