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BREXIT

Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens’ rights

As most Britons living in Europe were still reeling from the shock of the 2016 Brexit referendum, a small number of individuals and groups began to come together realising they faced a huge fight to protect rights that had always been taken for granted. This is their story.

Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights
British in Italy campaigners in Florence before British PM Theresa May gave a speech in September 2017.

To find out how this movement began from another campaign to secure the vote for millions of disenfranchised Brits abroad, read Part One of this story. Part Three: January 11th.

Ask most British nationals living abroad where they were that night Britain voted to leave the EU and they can remember.

Some watched in tears in their living rooms, others were left to console themselves in the waiting room of an airport. 

Most Brits living in the EU watched the coverage in horror as they realised the shock Brexit referendum result would change their lives forever. And what made it worse for many of them was that they had not even been allowed to vote.

“On the night of the referendum a group of friends came to my house and watched the results come in,” Fiona Godfrey, co-founder and co-chair of citizens’ rights umbrella group British in Europe, tells The Local.

“People were sitting on my living room floor crying,” she adds.

Fiona Godfrey, co-chair of British in Europe. Photo: Fiona Godfrey. 

The day after the vote, UK nationals across Europe – expert estimates for the size of the community vary from 1.2 million to 3.6 million – found themselves facing a future full of uncertainty and anxiety.

They had opted to build a life in Europe based on the rights EU treaties afforded them. With Britain voting to leave the Union and to renegotiate all aspects of its relationship with the 27-country bloc, the futures of UK nationals in Europe and EU nationals in the UK were suddenly shrouded in doubt.

The 1.2 million Brits in Europe feared – and still have reason to given the threat of a no-deal Brexit – losing access to jobs, family reunification rights, healthcare, education, social services – their lives as they know them. The same is true for at least 3 million EU nationals living in the UK. 

A map with the official number of UK nationals registered (as of January 2018) as living in each EU27 country. Image: The Local.

But some were not prepared to take it lying down.

As the mourning after the referendum continued, ordinary citizens across Europe began to morph into the largest British citizenship rights campaign for decades. At first, nobody knew they were part of something bigger than their own anger.

Watershed moments

“The feeling of rage drove us to do something,” recalls Jeremy Morgan, a British lawyer who is based in central Italy.

He and his partner Delia Dumaresq recall “being in tears at 6 am at Stansted Airport” the day after the referendum.

“It came out of the strength of feeling, of people who have exercised their rights,” he said.

Morgan and Dumaresq began to brainstorm with other Brits in Italy about what they could do. Journalist Patricia Clough and financial advisor Gareth Horsfall helped trace a web through the British community in Italy. The couple were also put in touch with journalist Giles Tremlett, who was active on the campaign for dual citizenship in Spain.

Delia Dumaresq (far left) and Jeremy Morgan (second from left) address a meeting on citizenship rights on November 20th, 2018, in Venice. Photo: British in Italy. 

In Berlin, France and Luxembourg, other groups of UK nationals had began organising themselves and creating networks.

Fiona Godfrey, 53, a British global health campaigner in Luxembourg, and a group of friends had their lightbulb moment soon after the referendum. “We went for a drink and said we must do something,” recalls Godfrey. Within 24 hours of setting up a Facebook group in July 2016, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s 6,000 Brits had joined.

Across Europe, Brits had experienced Brexit as a similar watershed moment. In Berlin, a group of campaigners who had worked on the Votes for Life campaign began to realise they had to shift the focus to citizenship rights.

British in Germany was born out of “the realisation that British citizens would have to fight for maintaining their citizenship rights in the EU,” recalls Daniel Tetlow, a British media professional in Berlin and a founder of British in Germany together with Jane Golding.

“Being heard and recognised as a serious constituency of Brits,” was the objective.

Golding, a British lawyer based in Berlin who became co-chair of the umbrella group British in Europe said: “We held a series of events on how the referendum could impact people. A lot of people’s lives were going to be affected,” she recalls.

“People asked: What is going to happen to us? Will you be there for us? Will you be there to protect our rights after the referendum?”

READ ALSO: How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One

 (Jane Golding, fourth from the right and Kalba Meadows to her right deliver a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo British in Europe)

In France, meanwhile, UK nationals also independently established groups to voice their concerns about how their lives would be affected – groups such as ECREU and Remain in France Together (RIFT).

RIFT, run by former social worker Kalba Meadows, now counts more than 11,000 members. “As we approached 2017 it was becoming apparent that we’d need to start standing up for ourselves,” Meadows, who moved to Ariége in France over a decade ago, tells The Local. 

Such fighting talk could be heard from Brits across Europe after the referendum. Groups like New Europeans were joining the battle.

The NGO, set up in 2013 by the former Labour MP for Wimbledon Roger Casale, had done a lot of work on raising awareness of what could happen to the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in Europe even long before the referendum.

“When we set up in 2013 and we used to tell people about how a referendum could affect EU citizens' rights and the rights of Brits in Europe, people used to say: What are you talking about?” Casale tells The Local. 

Casale's New Europeans, an organisation based in London and Brussels with 1,200 members who each pay €30 per year, helped bring together some of the key figures who went on to lead British in Europe and the3Million, which represents EU nationals living in the UK.

“I introduced Nicolas Hatton (chair of the3million) to Jane Golding (co-chair of British in Europe),” Casale recalls, adding that New Europeans provided a platform, via their webinars, for both activists to voice their early concerns and arguments about citizens' rights.

Such interventions from existing organisations were clearly key. But with Brexit, perhaps for the first time, thousands of UK nationals living in Europe were driven to a campaign to resist the threat to their European identity independently of any core leadership. 

“Brexit had wiped me out emotionally,” Laura Shields, a media trainer based in Brussels, told The Local. “I thought: I can either sit here and complain or I can go and do something.” Owner of a her own company and the mother of a five-year-old, Shields says she identifies herself as “a European.” 

A chance encounter led to her joining the movement. 

British in Europe spokeswoman Laura Shields, owner of media training company Red Thread in Brussels. Photo: Red Thread. 

A former chair of Liberal Democrats in the EU, Shields had met Jane Golding at an event in Brussels in 2017. 

“British in Europe didn’t have a press person, they were mainly all legal people,” she recalls. “We did some stuff on the Withdrawal Agreement. After that I just hung around,” says Shields, who has been British in Europe’s spokesperson ever since.

Conference call dates were pencilled in and Facebook groups conceived. Wynne Edwards of Fair Deal for Expats played a vital role by setting up the first conference calls that helped bring the different groups together to talk, with Jane Golding presiding as chair and moderator by January 2017.  This is how networks in each country became aware of their counterpart cells across the EU. 

Fears of ending up as third country nationals – an outcome that appears increasingly possible given the threat of a no-deal Brexit – was what drove campaigners on in the early days.

Chance meetings soon helped turn the concerns of a handful of worried Brits into a pan-European movement. For Jeremy Morgan and Delia Dumaresq, who founded British in Italy, an encounter at a bookstore in London helped them get audiences with politicians back home in Italy.

“We went along to the Italian Bookstore and were put in touch with the Democratic Party (PD) organiser in London, Roberto Stasi. He in turn put us in touch with other Democratic Party (PD) politicians in Italy,” recalls Morgan, who together with Jane Golding, helped shape British in Europe’s core legal texts.

That meeting at the bookstore led to other meetings with politicians in Italy, as well as an invite to give evidence before a joint senatorial committee.

Morgan had been exposed to campaigning through his work establishing law centres in the UK; Dumaresq had been involved in women’s rights campaigns in the 1970s, while Fiona Godfrey is a professional lobbyist.

Shields, Golding, and Roger Boaden – founder of ECREU, a British citizens in France group – had each worked for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives respectively. The issue of rights for families, communities and children cuts beyond party allegiances. 

While the first living cells of the post-referendum movement were formed as early as the day after the vote, it was a hearing in the UK’s Parliament that galvanised the groups and brought many of them face-to-face for the first time.

(Jane Golding speaks to fellow campaigners at a march calling for a People's Vote. Photo: BiE.)

A movement is born

“January 2017 was the start of the organisation as it is now,” recalls Jane Golding of British in Europe.

Golding had been invited to give evidence to the Exiting the European Union Select Committee at a hearing at the British parliament in London on how Brexit would affect UK nationals living in Europe.

“We felt we needed to have a representative group of people,” recalls Golding. Morgan and Golding met around Christmas 2016 and began to shape “the flagship paper which put out what we were seeing.”

Four people were selected to give evidence and were coached by the legal wisdom of Morgan and Golding.

“Our main concern is the loss of EU citizenship and the rights devolving from it: the right to remain, healthcare arrangements under the EU social security agreements, and pension entitlements and payments,” Christopher Chantrey, a British resident in France and one of the selected four told the House of Commons select committee.

Golding says the hearing forced the groups to identify what they were concerned about: “A bundle of interlinked rights that people had for life and were irrevocable. People had the legitimate expectation that they were for life,” states Golding.

Those rights include the right to freedom of movement, recognition of qualifications, the lifelong right to remain and many more. 

READ ALSO: Quiz: How well do you know Brexit?

The select committee hearing brought together the issues of UK nationals in Europe and those of EU nationals in the UK, with British in Europe and the3million having since joined forces to campaign for their rights in Westminster, Brussels and EU-wide.

“The hearing was quintessential in us working together and uniting,” recalls Golding, not only of the partnership with the3million, but for British in Europe itself as an organization. Around 10 UK nationals who had established groups in one country came together under the umbrella of British in Europe.

In the last two years, British in Europe and its offshoot movements have nevertheless gone from strength to strength, securing meetings with, as well as the support of, top negotiators, political figures and foreign offices across the EU.

Kalba Meadows has been a key part of that work.

Meadows, one of the founders of Remain in France Together (RIFT), had been an active campaigner in the UK but left all that behind for a quiet life in the French Pyrenees.

Brexit brought Meadows back into the campaigning landscape. “I didn’t need much excuse to reawaken my inner campaigner,” she says.

But uniting under British in Europe was nevertheless transformational. 

“I went from being a ‘lone voice’ in the wilds of rural France to part of a group of citizens’ rights campaigners right across the EU27,” says Meadows.

If Brits had failed to take an interest in the referendum before the vote, those living in Europe have tried to compensate since. Brexit has even made campaigners of British expats who had previously taken little interest in politics. 

“I had been blissfully ignorant of UK politics in particular, but I learnt fast,” Sue Wilson, who founded the citizens campaign group Bremain in Spain in late 2016, told The Local.

Wilson says it took her three weeks just to get over the “shock,anger, sadness and depression caused by the result of the referendum.” Three months later Bremain in Spain, a group which now counts thousands of Brits in Spain as members, was born.

Sue Wilson, 65, a resident of Alcossebre, Castellon Province in the Valencian Community and founder of Bremain in Spain. Photo: Susan Wilson. 

Since then, Wilson says she has worked 70 hours a week.

She says her objective is “to protect the rights of British citizens in the EU.

“She adds that there is only one way to really do that: stop Brexit completely.

With just over 80 days until Britain will officially no longer be a member of the EU, stopping Brexit at this stage seems like wishful thinking, unless something extraordinary happens in parliament and a second referendum or general election is called. 

But whatever happens over the next few weeks the campaigning will likely go on.

The fact that it is personal has helped. “We are the people affected as well as the people campaigning,” says Jane Golding.

But the campaign is ultimately about more than nationality. “The outrage is over the deprivation of rights both sides of the channel,” says British in Italy’s Jeremy Morgan.

To find out how this story concludes and what British in Europe have achieved in the two years since the organisation's inception, make sure you read Part Three in our newsletter on January 11th. 

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You can sign up here for our 'Europe & You' weekly newsletter on Brexit from the perspective of Brits in Europe and the EU27.

READ MORE: How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe 

Member comments

  1. The people were asked to stay or exit, they chose to exit, anything else is undemocratic and a slap in the face of people who voted to exit the EU.

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For members

MOVING TO FRANCE

The post-Brexit guide for Brits who want to move to France (and stay here)

Is it harder since Brexit? Yes. Is it impossible? Certainly not. Here's everything you need to know about navigating the French immigration system and moving to France as a UK national.

The post-Brexit guide for Brits who want to move to France (and stay here)

Moving to France as the citizen of an EU country is a considerably more straightforward experience – and that’s still the case for those Brits lucky enough to have dual nationality with an EU country such as Ireland.

For the rest, since Brexit they enter an unfamiliar world of immigration offices, visas and cartes de séjour – but this is only the same system that non-EU nationals like Americans, Canadians and Australians have always faced and plenty of them manage to move to France each year.

It’s just a question of knowing how to navigate the system:

NB – this article is for people making the move permanently to France from 2021 onwards, for second-home owners who want to spend time in France but keep their main residence in the UK – click HERE

Visas 

Brits are covered by the 90-day rule so if you want to make short visits to France you can do so without any extra paperwork (until 2023, that is), but if you want to come here to live, you will need a visa.

The only groups exempt from visa requirements are people who have dual nationality with an EU country (eg Ireland) or people who are coming as a spouse or family member of a UK national who is already living here and is covered by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – click here for full details.

It’s important to note that your visa has to be sorted before you leave the UK, so there’s no point coming over here as a tourist and then hoping to figure it out from France.

Almost all visas charge processing fees and you need to be prepared to create a big bundle of supporting documents, but the first thing to do is work out the type of visa that you need.

Here’s an overview of the most common types:

Spouse Visa

Contrary to popular belief, being married to a French person doesn’t exempt you from the visa process, but does make things a little easier if you decide to go for a spouse visa – you’ll be able to get a 12-month visa and you’ll have to register at the Immigration Office (OFFI) within three months of arrival. This will count as your residence card (more info on how to get residency later).

The good news is that the application is free but you’ll need a heap of documents including application forms, proof of marriage, proof of your spouse’s nationality, and a residence form. More info here.

Work Visa

If you intend to work in France then you have two options; get a work visa as a salaried employee or get an entrepreneur visa if you intend to set up your own business or work self-employed as a freelancer or contractor.

Employee visa – The toughest part of the employee visa is that you need to find a job first, rather than coming to France and then job-hunting. 

Once you find a job, you then need to have your work contract approved by the authorities at the French Labour Ministry (then again at the OFFI offices) and depending on the sector you work in your employer may have to apply for a work permit and justify why they’re hiring you and not a European.

If you’re bringing family on this visa, get the employer to start a file for them at the same time. You’ll need to fill in application forms, residence forms, and you’ll need to pay a processing fee.  

Entrepreneur – this applies for people who want to set up their own business (eg run a gîte or B&B) or work in an self-employed capacity including as a freelancer or contractor. 

The entrepreneur visa has different requirements, including a detailed business plan and proof of financial means – essentially you need to be able to demonstrate that you can support yourself even if your business idea or freelance career never takes off.

Here 2021 arrival Joseph Keen takes us through the entrepreneur visa: ‘Not too complicated but quite expensive’ – what it’s like getting a French work visa

Visitor Visa

This is for those who want to live in France but don’t have a job, a French spouse, or plans to study – it’s most commonly used by retired people and it brings with it the requirement to have a certain level of assets.

READ ALSO How much money do I need to get a French visa?

You’ll need: filled-in questionnaires and application forms, an undertaking not to work in France (not even working remotely for an employer back in the UK or setting up a gîte or B&B business in France), proof that you can support yourself in France, proof of financial means, proof of medical insurance, proof of accommodation in France, among other things. More info here

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Student visa

The good news is that the fee is around half that of the other long stay visas, at €50, and is usually shorter to process, but the bad news is that it’s no walk in the park.

You’ll need a series of documents from Campus France, financial guarantees and proof of enrolment at a French establishment of higher education. More info here

Au Pair visa

If you’re between the ages of 17 and 30, don’t mind a few household chores and quite like children, then this year-long visa could be right up your alley.

You’ll need all the usual forms, but also an “au pair contract” approved by the French ministry of labour, an invitation from your host family, and you’ll have to sign up to language courses for while you’re here. Read more about becoming an au pair here, and find out more on the visa info here

Talent Passport

If you qualify for it, there’s also the ‘talent passport’ which is really the best type of visa because it lasts for four years before you need to renew and you can bring family members on it. 

It offers a four-year work visa to people who can demonstrate certain business, creative or academic skills, or who have a provable reputation in their field – for example, scientific, literary, artistic, intellectual, educational, or sporting. The categories were recently expanded and cover quite a wide variety of fields. More info here.

Besides these options, there is always a scientist visa, an internship visa, and a diplomatic visa.

Next steps

Once you have decided which visa you need, you apply online, submitting all the required documents and a fee (usually around €80-€100). You will then need to make an in-person visit to the French consulate in London.

EXPLAINED: How to get a French visa 

Processing times for visas vary, but you should allow at least six weeks.

What else?

Once you have secured your visa you’re more or less ready to travel, but there are some other things to check.

Health insurance – some visa types, especially those for people who will not be working, require proof of health insurance and depending on the type of visa the GHIC or EHIC card is not always accepted.

If this is the case you will need to buy a private health insurance (not travel insurance) policy that covers the entire duration of your visa. Depending on your age and state of health these policies can be expensive, so you should factor this in to your financial calculations.

If you are a UK pensioner or student you might be entitled to an S1 form from the NHS – S1 is accepted as proof of health insurance for visa purposes.

Once you have been living in France for three months, you’re entitled to register in the public health system and get a carte vitale, but the process of getting the card can be quite lengthy, so it’s a good idea to have health cover for these early months even if it’s not a requirement of your visa.

Bear in mind the GHIC/EHIC doesn’t cover all types of medical expenses.

Driving licence – if you intend to drive in France then you can use your UK/NI licence with no requirement for an international driver’s permit.

The good news here is that the post-Brexit deal on driving licences also covers new arrivals, and means that after a certain period you can swap your UK licence for a French one without having to take the French driving test – full details here.

If you are bringing your UK-registered car with you, you will have to change its registration to French – here’s how.

Bank account – for everyday life in France you will likely need a French bank account, but many French banks require proof of an address, while landlords often won’t rent to you without a French bank account, creating something of a Catch 22. 

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about opening a French bank account

If you still have financial activity in the UK such as a rental property or a UK pension you will likely need a UK bank account too, but keeping UK accounts while resident in France is becoming more difficult. We spoke to a financial expert to get some tips

Taxes – this hasn’t changed since Brexit, but it’s something that often catches people out – if you live in France you need to file an annual tax declaration, even if you have no income in France (eg you are living on a pension from the UK). More details here.

If you still have financial activity in the UK – such as a property rental – you will usually also need to file a tax return in the UK, but while you have all the fun of doing two tax declarations every year, a dual-taxation agreement between France and the UK means you won’t have to pay tax twice on the same income. 

And how to stay in France

But once you’re in France, you might want to stay here. Think that getting your visa represents the end of your French paperwork? Dream on!

Depending on the type of visa you have you may be required to visit OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et Intégration) on arrival to register and you may be required to undergo a medical examination or to take French classes if your language skills are a little basic.

Other types of visa require you to validate them at your local préfecture within a certain time period.

These ‘in country’ steps are important, so in between popping Champagne when your visa arrives, take the time to read carefully the accompanying documents and note down when you need to take the next steps.

Your visa will also need renewing, most initial visas last for one year, but there are exceptions.

The exact steps vary depending on your visa type, but the most common route is to apply for a residency permit (carte de séjour) so that you can stay longer than just 12 months – you usually apply for this two months before your visa runs out.

We look in more detail at the next steps HERE.

French administration is in the process of moving its immigration system online, but we’re now at the halfway stage where you can apply for some types of cartes de séjour online, but others require a visit to your local préfecture.

Once you’ve been here for five (continuous) years, you’re eligible for long-term residency, which does away with the annual paperwork.

And if you have been here for five continuous years (or three years if you completed higher education in France) and speak good French, then you can apply for French citizenship – if you’re game for a whole lot more paperwork.

READ ALSO Am I eligible for French citizenship?

You can also find lots more information tailored to UK nationals in our Brits in France section.

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