The Local’s view: Most Brits in Europe didn’t ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work

The EU has given hundreds of thousands of Brits the chance to build lives abroad. Most Brits in Europe didn't choose Brexit, but now it's happening we have an important choice to make, writes The Local's James Savage.

The Local's view: Most Brits in Europe didn't ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work
The Local runs news sites in nine European countries. Photo: AFP

The British MEPs – many of whom were only elected in May – are packing their bags in Brussels for the last time. British ministers have attended their last European Council meetings. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has signed the document ratifying Britain's exit from the EU. 

And on Friday night Big Ben will (much to the frustration of some pro-Brexit MPs) witness the end of 47 years of British membership of the European project in silence.

If Britain ever rejoins, it will be many years in the future and on very different terms. Every sign is that the immediate future relationship between Britain and the EU will be a far looser relationship than Norway or even Switzerland currently have. Free movement won't be a part of it.

If you, like me, are a Brit who made your home in another EU country it's a strange feeling.

I hopped on a train to Paris at 22, got a job, fell in love with a Swede and eventually settled in Sweden. Others have moved for work, to retire, to study – or like me, just on a whim – and many have stayed. When my nieces in England are 22, many of those opportunities will be closed to them. But for too many Britons, the idea of living in another country – especially one where the language isn't English – is entirely alien.

Being an EU citizen in another EU country is a funny thing. Culturally you're an immigrant – a new language, a different culture, a frustratingly unfamiliar bureaucracy. Yet in an important sense you are there as of right, as a European citizen, not as a privilege.

For those of us already in an EU country that right is only partially protected after Brexit: we will be legal residents but not citizens, and we will lose our right to vote (in most countries) and stand for election in local, regional and European elections as well as onward freedom of movement to other European countries.

There are Brits living in the EU who welcome Brexit, and not only because they want to keep immigrants out of the UK (though some people with an underdeveloped sense of irony hold that view too).

But when we asked The Local's readers for your feelings ahead of Brexit Day, the overall sentiment was one of depression – the word 'devastated' came up again and again. 'Like a hangover that won't go away' was another comment. 

And your thoughts weren't primarily occupied by your own predicaments – many of you were more worried about the big picture: Britain's future, Europe's future and the future of friends and family left behind. 

The Brexit negotiations have been deeply unsettling for many Brits living in the EU, as they have for EU citizens in the UK. We've often been asked to trust politicians with a shaky grasp of our realities and sometimes an open disdain for our views. Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' jibe may not have been meant for us, but for some it felt like it.

Brexit has also engendered a venomous political debate that has seeped into our relationships with friends and family. We now live in a world where we either approve of or disdain the political opinions of people with whom we had never previously even discussed politics. Increased engagement in politics, we've learned, isn't always an unalloyed sign of progress.

But as withdrawal approaches these tensions have subsided a bit, as they must. As Brexit became inevitable, the subject moved further into the background at the Christmas dinner table. Choosing not to fight a culture war doesn't mean renouncing your views.

Thankfully most Brits living around the EU will be able to continue their lives as before, even if some important issues – such as the rights of those who work in different countries, the rights of people who don't meet various income requirements for residency and onward freedom of movement – remain unsolved. The Local will be watching these issues closely over the coming months and years.  

Indeed, if we're to play the glad game (and why not?), some genuine positives have come out of this process: more of us have reached out to fellow Brits in our communities across Europe and built deep and lasting bonds – something that's been palpable among the Brits who read The Local; more of us have become citizens in the countries in which we live, planting our masts firmly where we live, work and love; along with countless people in Britain we have reflected on what unites us as Europeans, not only what distinguishes us as Brits.

These don't compensate fully for the negatives, but they're worth recognizing.

Perhaps we've also reflected on divisions in British society, divisions reflected across Europe, that gave rise to Brexit in the first place. 

Britain enters a new world on Friday night, and so do Brits living in the EU. We might not have chosen this world, but we can choose how we relate to it. We should choose carefully.


James Savage is Publisher and co-founder of The Local Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @SavLocal


Member comments

  1. I am disappointed, although not surprised to see yet another biased article. I voted for Brexit because I absolutely disagree with how the EU is run. I could not in all good conscience vote for such an undemocratic, non-transparent, wasteful system. I do not agree with the economis sytems of the EU and I defintely do not agree with the Euro. It has crippled south european countries. There are too many EU policies that I find sinister and it is clear to anyone who wants to look that it is as good as a federation. Another United States. Well, we’ve seen how well they work and I did not want Britain to be part of that. I live in France simply because I could afford a house here without a mortgage. Simple. I have also lived in the Far East.

    Please note tnhat I believe Britian desperately needs immigration as we do not have enough people for certain jobs. Brexit was not about immigration for everyone and it is prejudicial to state it was the only reason for Brexit but typical of the media. How sad.

    I will not vote for something I disagree with.
    The world outside of the EU is much bigger than the EU. Let’s get on with working with the whole world and thank goodness we are getting our of the EU protectionist economics.

    Louise Rollason

  2. I totally agree with you, Louise. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Although I’m based in France, I still work for, and pay taxes in, the UK. I unfortunately couldn’t vote, as I’m an Italian citizen, and if I could, I would have voted against Brexit. I always hoped that the UK would have been able to help the EU get out of the bordello they’re in, by being in the EU. Too late now, GB has left. I wish the EU all the best, but I honestly don’t see the silver lining yet. Take care.

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Mythbuster: Can you really ‘cheat’ the Schengen 90-day rule?

It's human nature to look for a loophole, shortcut or workaround to the rules, but most of the advertised 'dodges' to the EU's 90-day rule are nothing of the sort.

Mythbuster: Can you really 'cheat' the Schengen 90-day rule?

If you’re the citizen of a non-EU country and you want to spend long periods in the EU/Schengen zone, you will need a visa.

But citizens of certain countries – including the US, Canada, Australia and the UK – benefit from the ’90-day rule’, which allows you to travel visa free within the Schengen zone for 90 days out of every 180.

Anyone wanting to spend longer than this will need a visa or residency card.

READ ALSO: How does the EU’s 90-day rule work?

So a simple enough rule, and for most travellers 90 days out of every 180 is perfectly adequate for holidays, family visits etc.

However some groups – especially second-home owners – might want to spend longer than this.

For Brits, entering the world of the 90-day rule is a recent development, since before Brexit Brits were EU citizens and therefore benefited from EU freedom of movement.

The harsh reality of the post-Brexit world has prompted a steady stream of articles in UK media (examples pictured below) promising ’90-day loopholes’ or ‘how to beat the 90-day rule’ (scroll to the end of this article for what the below ‘loopholes’ really entail).

But do these so-called loopholes really exist?

Despite the claims in the headlines, there are really only three options for non-EU citizens wanting to spend time in the EU – limit their stays to 90 days in every 180 (which still adds up to six months over the course of a year); get a short-stay visitor visa; or move to an EU country full-time and become a resident.

READ ALSO Your questions answered about the EU’s 90-day rule

All of the advertised tricks, dodges and loopholes are really just variations on these three options.

Limit stays to 90 days

Advantages – the big advantage of this method is no paperwork. You can travel visa free and there is no requirement to register with authorities in the country you are visiting (although second home owners will of course have to pay property taxes and other local taxes in the area where their property is located).

In this scenario you retain residency in your home country and are simply a visitor in the EU – a status identical to that of a tourist.

Disadvantages – the time limit is too short for many people and there is also the problem that stays are limited to 90 days in every 180. Although over the course of a year this adds up to six months, you cannot take your six months all in one go – so for example spending the winter in Spain and the summer in the UK is no longer possible. Likewise travelling to your French holiday home for four months over the summer is no longer an option.

It’s up to you to keep track of your 90 days, which you can use as either one long trip or multiple short trips. The 90-day limit is calculated on a rolling calendar and keeping track of the days and making sure you have not exceeded your limit can be stressful.

As a visitor, you have no rights to enter the country if the borders close (as, for example, happened during the pandemic).

READ ALSO How to calculate your 90-day limit

Short-stay visa

If you want to remain a resident in your home country but don’t want to be constrained by the 90-day rule, you can get a short-stay visitor visa. Visas are issued on a national level, there is no such thing as an EU-wide visa, so you will need to apply for a visa in the country where you want to stay.

Different EU countries have different visas, but most offer a short-stay visa (usually six months) that gives you the status of a visitor, but allows you to stay for longer than 90 days.

Advantages – no more counting the days, for the period when your visa is valid you can stay for as long as you like in the country of your choice. By maintaining your residency in your home country, you don’t have to register with authorities in the EU country and won’t be liable for residency-based taxes.

Disadvantages – visa paperwork can be complicated and the process is time-consuming and sometimes expensive (most countries require an in-person visit to the consulate as part of the process). You also need to plan in advance as visas take several weeks or months to be issued.

A visitor visa usually requires proof of financial means, so this is not available to people on very low incomes.

You are still classed as a visitor, so have no rights to enter the country if the borders close (as, for example, happened during the pandemic).

If you are spending a significant amount of time each year out of your home country, this might also affect your tax status, depending on the rules of your home country around ‘tax residency’ (which is not the same as residency for immigration purposes).

Move to an EU country

If you were accustomed to splitting your time roughly equally between your second home and your home country, you might want to consider becoming a resident in the EU.

Advantages – as a resident, you are no longer constrained by the 90-day rule in the country in which you live. The rule does, however, apply to other EU countries. So if for example you are a Brit resident in France, there are no limits on the amount of time you can spend in France. However the 90-day rule does still apply for trips to Italy, Spain, Germany and all other EU/Schengen zone countries. In practice, border checks while travelling within the Schengen zone are pretty light touch, but technically the rule still applies.

You can of course pay unlimited visits to your home country, provided you maintain your citizenship.

Disadvantages – moving countries involves a lot of paperwork. The process varies slightly depending on the country and your personal situation but in general you will first need to get a visa (which must be applied for from your home country, before you move) and then on arrival will usually need to undergo extra admin to validate the visa and register with local authorities. You might also be required to undergo a medical examination and take classes in the national language.

Depending on the type of visa you apply for, you may also need to provide proof of financial means, which disadvantages people on low incomes.

You will also need to register for healthcare under the system of the country you live in, and may be required to either pay taxes or at least complete an annual tax declaration in the country you live in.

Admin is not a one-off event either, most countries require you to regularly renew your visa or residency card. Being officially resident abroad will likely also affect your tax status and access to healthcare in your home country, while your pension entitlements may also be affected.

Can’t we just ignore the 90-day rule?

As a responsible publication, The Local obviously doesn’t advise breaking any laws, but aside from the moral issue, the practicalities of the 90-day rule make it a difficult one to get around.

If you’re not working or claiming benefits most EU countries are unlikely to even notice that you have over-stayed, and the prospect of police knocking on your door is pretty remote.

However, the problem arises when you need to travel, as border guards will likely spot that you arrived in the EU more than 90 days previously and have no visa. Penalties for over-stayers include fines, deportation and ‘over-stay’ stamps in your passport that will make future travel more difficult.

Planned changes to EU border controls (due to come into effect in 2024) will tighten up these checks.

So in short you could over-stay your 90-days but only if you were prepared to never leave the Schengen zone. And if you’re now living here full time there will come a day when you need to access healthcare or other social benefits and that will be difficult if you do not have an official status as a resident.

All EU countries have undocumented migrants living in them, often working illegally on a cash-in-hand basis, but their existence is precarious, they are ripe for exploitation and often live in poverty. We wouldn’t recommend it. 

PS: Those ‘loopholes’ promised in the articles above? The couple in the Telegraph got a visa and moved to France full time, where they are now residents. They told the paper: “The visa process took 9 to 10 months – we had thought it might take three. Yet we think our new life is wonderful and more than worth all the effort.”

The travel influencer mentioned in The Sun simply limits her stays in the Schengen zone to 90 days out of the every 180, but instead of returning to the UK for the rest of the time, she goes to Bulgaria (which is not part of the Schengen zone).

Truly, there are no loopholes . . .