How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe

The trauma of Brexit and the fight to make sure the UK's divorce from the EU does not ruin the lives of 1.2 million Brits living across the EU has brought people together both online and in person. This is the story of how the 'citizen of nowhere network' came together.

How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe
Jane Golding (holding banner on left) and Kathryn Dobson (holding banner in centre) at the People's March in London in 2018. Photo: British in Europe.

This is Part Three of the story on how British in Europe, the grassroots civil society movement, was born. You can read Part One and Part Two below. 

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

Part Two – Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

The unprecedented campaign for citizens rights by British volunteers across Europe has built bridges from one community to another in individual EU countries and across the continent.

Thousands have come together both in person and online.

Dozens of Facebook groups founded and run by volunteers have united thousands of British citizens left shocked and anxious after the referendum.

While these groups, such as Bremain in Spain and Remain in France Together, are, as their name suggests, Remainer-focused, they have brought and bring together people from all walks of life and even people who voted Leave.

“One of the only positives of Brexit is that I have met some fantastic people across Europe,” the co-chair of umbrella group British in Europe Fiona Godfrey says.

“I have seen people who have nothing to do with politics get involved. The knock on effect will be good for them and their communities,” adds Godfrey. Almost all the campaigners involved with British in Europe are pro-European and ultimately anti Brexit.

Kalba Meadows, who leads the 11,000 strong Remain in France Together (RIFT) confirms the irony that “none of us would have met each other if it weren’t for Brexit.”

Many of the online forums serve as a virtual parliament, court and advice clinic wrapped into one for thousands of upset UK nationals in Europe, many of whom were unable to vote in the referendum.

Members of British in Europe meet with French senator Olivier Cadic and Nicolas Hatton, the head of the3Million.

Clarissa Killwick, a volunteer with Brexpats Hear Our Voice and British in Italy, agrees that the connections made via these online groups are one of the major highlights of her work.

“It is my citizen of nowhere network,” says Killwick, a Brit living in northern Italy, referring to Theresa May's famous jibe against people who believe they are global citizens. “I feel reconnected.”

From the Baltics to Malta, via Czech Republic, Sweden, Portugal and the EU’s major economies, British in Europe is now made up of 25 groups across European states.

'British in the Baltics' is the latest group, says Debra Williams, British in Europe’s outreach coordinator and founder of advocacy group Brexpats Hear Our Voice.

The biggest challenges came in “countries where there wasn’t any coverage,” Williams says.

Groups were started in places British in Europe lacked a footprint in thanks to social media connections, adds Williams. “Facebook was absolutely key in creating connections,” she says.

Williams, formerly with the RAF and an air traffic controller, says her job involves keeping the groups informed about the steering committee’s key policies.

Kathryn Dobson, a British journalist in southwest France who manages social media for British in Europe, joined the movement out of concerns for her children.

“Everybody was talking about the issue of Brits in Europe being one about pensioners when I could see from my own situation that we needed to be talking about families and young people,” says Dobson, who lives in Vienne, western France.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Where do Brits in France now stand if there's a no-deal Brexit?

“There was a danger that the whole story was not being told,” she says, highlighting how at the time she suspected what is now confirmed by statistics: that 80 per cent of Brits in Europe are of working age, defying the stereotype that Brits in Europe are mainly pensioners.

RIFT founder Kalba Meadows (holding post card on left) British in Europe co-chair Jane Golding (centre) and the3million CEO Nicolas Hatton (holding postcard on right) deliver a letter to the British PM's office at 10 Downing Street in November 2018. Photo: British in Europe. 

READ ALSO:  Could this EU Green Card save freedom of movement for Britons in Europe?

As the rollercoaster Brexit process unfolded, British in Europe’s strength has been the ability to adapt and stay relevant.

In individual member states, their efforts have offered thousands of Brits some respite in the face of continued uncertainty.

Following intensive lobbying efforts by British in Europe members, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark have all created contingency plans for Brits in the event that the current Brexit deal collapses and the UK should exit the EU without an agreement.

READ ALSO: No-deal Brexit: Country by country guide to how the rights of Britons will be affected

These contingency plans would continue to guarantee certain key rights for Brits living in those countries, although in certain countries like France, it all depends on Britain securing the rights of French citizens.

In Germany alone, Jane Golding, Daniel Tetlow and other British in Germany members held eight meetings with Germany’s Brexit coordinators at the Federal German Foreign Office. Similar pressure has been placed on governments across the EU.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Berlin's Brexit registering process

“Brexit is crap but the relationships developed with MEPs, British in Europe and unlikely champions across the EU is the best bit,” says the organisation’s spokeswoman, Brussels-based Laura Shields.

“I’m now connected with caterers in the Alps, someone who runs a children’s company in Budapest, winemakers in the south of France. I would never have met these people if it hadn’t been for the movement,” Shields said.

Many of these groups serve as informal therapy forums and safe havens for vulnerable Brits to express their concerns about Brexit. But the groups have also helped outline and bring together a British diaspora in Europe.

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

“It’s a resource for Britain,” says author Giles Tremlett, who has been based in Madrid for the last 25 years. “We’re not represented in parliament in the same way expatriates are represented in France or Italy,” says Tremlett, a key middleman who helped establish British in Europe in late 2016. 

While French citizens in the UK have Senator Olivier Cadic to represent them, Italian citizens abroad are looked after by Luigi Vignali, director general for Italian citizens abroad at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affair. UK nationals in Europe have no equivalent.

“British in Europe is filling that role,” says Tremlett.

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

Without doubt one of the highlights of the coming together was on October 20th last year when protesters set off from across all parts of Europe to join the 700,000 marching on London calling for a People's Vote.

Joining the march in London was also a show of solidarity by British in Europe with EU Citizens in the UK, another cross-border bond that has been forged as a result of the uncertainty and fears over Brexit.

“The campaign and advocacy group British in Europe has worked hand in hand with our counterpart the3million for two years now, and our friendship and collaboration has been one of the few positives to come out of Brexit,” RIFT's Kalba Meadows told The Local at the time.

“We'll be meeting and marching together as The 5 Million to celebrate that friendship as well as our shared European-ness.”

The campaigning, the lobbying, the marching  and the sharing of experiences will likely continue for months if not years to come, but at least Britons in Europe have a community ready for battle.




Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Italy?

If you're visiting Italy from a non-EU country your time here is limited, unless you have a visa - but what happens to people who overstay and how strictly are the rules really enforced?

What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Italy?

The 90-day rule has long applied to non-EU nationals like Americans, Canadians and Australians and since Brexit it also applies to Brits.

However it’s not always clear what happens to people who overstay, and whether the rules are being strictly enforced on the ground. 

What is the rule?

Non-EU nationals, including Brits, can stay for 90 days out of every 180 in the EU without needing a visa or a residency permit. This can be in the form of one long stay or several short stays.

The limit is for time spent within the EU, so you cannot simply move to a different EU country, you need to leave the Bloc altogether and go to a non-EU country.

This does not apply to people who live in Italy and have a residency card. 

Brexit: How Brits can properly plan their 90 out of 180 days in Italy and the Schengen zone

If you want to stay longer than 90 days – either because you are moving to Italy full-time or because you want longer visits – you will need to get a visa.

You can find full details on the types of visa HERE, but the key thing is that visas must be applied for in advance from your home country – you cannot come to Italy and then apply in order to extend your 90-day stay.

What are the penalties for people who overstay?

If you spend more than 90 days in the EU or Schengen zone without a visa or residency permit then you are officially an overstayer. And unlike the pre-EU days when passport control consisted of a man in a booth with a rubber stamp, scanning of all passports on entry/exit of the EU makes it pretty easy to spot overstayers.

This is set to become even more stringent when the EES scheme comes into effect next year – full details on that HERE

READ ALSO: Visas and residency permits: How to move to Italy (and stay here)

The EU lists a range of possible penalties although in practice some countries are stricter than others.

Within the system, anyone who overstays can be subject to the following penalties:

Deportation – if you are found to have overstayed, countries are within their rights to either imprison you and deport you, or give you a certain number of days to leave. In practice, deportation is rare for people who aren’t working or claiming benefits, they are more likely to be advised of the situation and told to leave as soon as possible.

Fines – fines can be levied in addition to other penalties and vary according to country. In Italy, those found to have overstayed their visa as a result of border checks conducted while they are voluntarily leaving the country of their own accord are not subject to any fine, but those caught overstaying their visa on Italian soil theoretically face both an expulsion order and a fine of between €5,000 and €10,000.

READ ALSO: What type of visa will you need to move to Italy?

Entry ban – countries can impose a complete ban on re-entry, usually for three years although it can be longer. A complete ban is usually only put in place for people who have over-stayed for a significant amount of time.

Difficulties returning to the Schengen area – even if you avoid all of the above penalties, the overstay alert on your passport will make it more difficult for you to return to the EU, and this applies to any EU or Schengen zone country, not just the one you over-stayed in. People who have this alert on their passport are likely to face extended checks at the border and may even be turned back. You will also likely encounter difficulties if you later apply for a visa or residency.

People who simply stay in an EU country without securing residency become undocumented immigrants and will not be able to access healthcare or social security provisions. If caught, they face deportation.

How is Italy really enforcing these rules?

Among EU countries Italy has a reputation for being among the less strict, and deportations are rare for people who are not working or claiming benefits, unless they have been in Italy for many years without the correct papers.

If it’s a question of simply over-staying by a few weeks it’s very unlikely that police will come to your home and deport you.

However, that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences of your over-stay – what’s likely to happen is that you will be caught next time you leave Italy.

Passports are stamped and scanned on entry, which means that border officials can see how long you have been in the country – if your arrival date was longer than 90 days ago you are likely to be flagged as an overstayer.

While in Italy this shouldn’t lead to a fine, there’s a possibility you may be banned from re-entering the country. 

A re-entry ban can be either for a limited time period or indefinitely and even if you avoid a ban your passport is likely to be stamped as an over-stayer, which can lead to complications for further travel anywhere within the EU.