As post-referendum Westminster sinks into a quagmire of plots and paralysis, only one thing is clear: there is neither a Plan A nor a Plan B for Brexit. Instead, British citizens are now subject to fear-mongering, rumour and speculation.
The scale and complexity of disengagement has come as a shock – to both sides – and Whitehall has warned that Britain has nowhere near enough skilled negotiators for the task ahead and that the government will need to boost its staff in both foreign embassies and in Brussels to cope with the forthcoming bargaining.
The rights of UK nationals to live, buy property, work, run a business, use public services, pay no more taxes than locals, vote in local elections in Europe all depend on what kind of deal the UK reaches with the EU – and at the moment Brussels is as disoriented and divided as London.
‘Many scenarios were outlined during the campaign but the truth is that we do not know what follows, except that we are facing a different Europe,’ says Olivier Campenon, president of the Franco-British chamber of commerce in Paris. QC George Peretz, and expert in EU law and who was himself hoping to retire to France, says that Brexit has thrown everything up into the air and ‘we don’t know how or where it will fall’.
So what, at this point, do we know for sure?
Despite various petitions and initiatives, a rerun, ignoring or annulling of the referendum vote is unlikely. Brexit will go ahead. New Prime Minister Theresa May, although officially a (very quiet) Remainer, has made this clear. Nor will there be any snap elections.
Although we don’t know when May will trigger Article 50, the two year extraction process from Europe, we can assume we will remain European citizens until summer 2018 at the earliest. And Europe has made it clear to member states that British nationals continue to be treated as EU nationals until this time.
In other words, there is no need for immediate panic.
Britain’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau advises: ‘It’s likely that some laws will change in the future – but not immediately…If you’re a UK citizen living in the EU …you don’t need to take any action now. Changes to the law will be announced before they happen, so you’ll have time to prepare if you’re affected.’
Prime Minister David Cameron also sought to reassure UK nationals living and working in Europe in his post referendum address. ‘I would also reassure Brits living in European countries…that there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances.’ And again at the first Prime Minister’s Questions after the Brexit vote: ‘On this issue of British people living overseas, I think we should reassure people that until Britain leaves the EU there is absolutely no change in their status. One of the things that this unit at the heart of Whitehall can do in the coming weeks is to go through these issues very methodically and work out what might need to change in all the different scenarios to give these people certainty about their futures and it’s obviously very important that we do that.’
His answer was followed by an early day motion, no 259, on the status of British Citizens resident in the EU and EU citizens resident in the UK: ‘this House recognises that there is anxiety amongst EU citizens currently residing in the UK and British citizens residing in the EU about their own and their families’ situation…and calls on the Government…to agree with the European Council the necessary safeguards and guarantees to protect the future status of these citizens, in order to remove uncertainty and allay their concerns.’
But in the run up to the referendum, a UK parliamentary committee concluded that Brits living in France and other EU countries would be left in “ghastly” legal limbo for years. Committee chair Lord Boswell of Aynho said: ‘This is complex stuff – you are talking about the right to residence, to healthcare and to schooling, about maintenance payments and access to children, about research projects and contracts that cross borders, sorting all this out would be a daunting task.’
However, some lawyers argue that British expats living elsewhere in the EU at the time of Brexit would have individual “acquired rights” under international law. In other words, Brits who have already exercised their right to live in EU states may keep that right after Brexit.
And on another bright note, German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has suggested that Britons living in the European Union should be given dual citizenship so they can stay when their country leaves the bloc. ‘Let us offer citizenship to Britons who live in Germany, Italy or France, so they can remain European Union citizens in this country.’
For now, though, it is a waiting game. In the following series of articles and over the coming weeks and months we will look at how Brexit will affect your life in France, keep you abreast of developments and advise on steps you can take to protect your current situation.