The government has been accused of forgetting about the million-plus British citizens living on the continent as it emerged that neither Theresa May, David Davis nor Dominic Raab have once met with their representatives since the Brexit process began.
On the EU side chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt have given British in Europe – the umbrella group representing British citizens living in the EU – multiple audiences, updating them on the status of negotiations.
But despite repeated requests for meetings in the over two years since the vote the group has yet to secure any time with the senior figures on the British side, with overtures “either refused or ignored”.
Theresa May on Friday assured EU citizens living in the UK that they would be allowed to stay in the event of no deal, but she again failed to address the plight of the 1.2 million British citizens in the EU – who potentially face huge upheaval.
The government says it gave the citizens’ group, which has 30,000 supporters, a meeting with a junior minister, Robin Walker, and that British citizens will be able to “continue their lives broadly as now”.
But despite the rosy view painted by the government, British migrants say they still have huge concerns about their futures that they have not had an opportunity to air in high-level meetings.
The draft withdrawal agreement offers some protections for British already citizens in the EU – such as the ability to remain in their country and recognition for their professional qualifications.
But it also “country-locks” most people, who won’t have the right to work across borders – even if their jobs currently take them all over Europe, as many business and professional roles do. British people living in Europe were promised before the referendum that nothing would change for them.
Despite the popular image of pensioners retiring to the Costa del Sol, the vast majority of British citizens in Europe – over 80 per cent – are of working age, often doing international jobs that regularly take them around the continent.
The increasing looming threat of a no-deal Brexit also means that even these limited negotiated protections might not apply, with the citizens left in a legal limbo – and no alternative plan currently in place.
Jane Golding, chair of British in Europe, told The Independent: “Time is running out for the British government to show its UK citizens in Europe that we are a priority. Over the past two years our countless requests for meetings with David Davis, Theresa May and now Dominic Raab have either been refused or ignored.
“And yet our situation remains far from secure. Not only have some of our most burning issues – namely free movement, which many of the 80 per cent of us who are working age or younger rely on for work and family – been kicked into the long grass of the negotiations. But, with the prospect of no deal rising by the day, we run the risk of having our lives thrown into turmoil on Brexit day as everything that’s agreed so far will evaporate into thin air.
“Unilateral guarantees on the part of the British government towards EU citizens in the UK or vice versa are not enough, as there are many issues that need to be agreed reciprocally. We urge both Dominic Raab and Michel Barnier to agree to ringfence the existing citizens’ rights deal so that affected people can salvage something from the wreckage of a no deal.”
In a letter to Ms May sent last week British in Europe accused Theresa May of “a disgraceful and unacceptable omission” in addressing the rights of her own citizens.
“Over the last 18 months the UK has negotiated away our rights, you and your secretaries of state have refused to meet with us and now you completely ignore us at a critical time in the negotiations,” she said.
Even under a best-case scenario, as currently negotiated British citizens face a patchwork of different schemes to gain settled status in EU countries if they want to stay. Some states already register migrants, while others want to impose a new system mirroring the British one for EU citizens living in the UK.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, told The Independent: “The European parliament has set out a number of outstanding issues with regard to the rights of EU and UK nationals that still need to be addressed, to mitigate the consequences of Brexit.
“Future free movement rights across the whole EU for UK citizens currently resident in an EU-27 member state must be guaranteed. I am hopeful EU27 governments will also soon provide more guidance on the establishment of streamlined procedures to secure the residency rights of UK nationals in the EU.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: “Minister Robin Walker has met with British in Europe and we will continue to engage with this organisation and other citizens’ rights groups throughout the exit process.
“Safeguarding the rights of EU citizens and UK nationals has been our first priority in negotiations. This is a commitment we have delivered, securing a fair and serious agreement, grounded in reciprocity, which will see EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU being able to continue their lives broadly as now.”
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