Here’s how we should help expats through Brexit no man’s land

This post was originally published on the UK in a Changing Europe Website. It first appeared online 30th April 2018.

The rights of EU citizens resident in the UK and UK citizens resident in the EU27, and particularly the conditions under which they will be able to stay in the places they have made their homes, are laid out in the legal text of the draft withdrawal agreement.

Our report Next Steps: Implementing a Brexit Deal for UK Citizens living in the EU-27, co-authored with colleagues at the Migration Policy Institute, makes clear that there has been considerable political progress in respect of rights for UK citizens living in the EU27. However, there has been limited planning in Brussels, or within individual member states, about how the agreement over citizens’ rights will actually be implemented.

This compounds the uncertainty and insecurity that many of these UK citizens expressabout their lives, with people remaining unsure about where they should turn to access information about securing their future residency rights.

While the UK will be bringing in ‘settled status’, a designated (and controversial) system for registering EU citizens, there is currently no clarity about what the 900,000 UK citizens living in EU27 member states will need to do to demonstrate their lawful residence and regularize their status post-Brexit.

This lack of clarity is perhaps unsurprising given the lack of precedent for a legal situation that will see EU citizens become third country nationals within their countries of residence.

At present their rights and entitlements are ensured by their status as EU citizens; the right to reside and to work in other EU member states is determined and governed by legislation specific to EU nationals.

Such structures are distinct from those used to legislate and regularize third country nationals, and furthermore, there are different government bodies responsible for the governance of EU citizens and third country nationals respectively.

While the introduction of settled status responds to this in-between state of EU nationals in the UK, no equivalent has yet been suggested in respect of UK citizens living in the EU27.

This leaves questions outstanding both in the minds of citizens, government officials and agencies about which structures are appropriate in order to regularize the status of these soon-to-be-migrant populations.

This has had the effect of producing a veritable no man’s land: Brits resident in the EU27 are caught between their current status as EU citizens, and their future status as third country nationals in their states of residence. Navigating this no man’s land presents significant challenges not only for citizens, but also for those government officials and agencies that are responsible, at least nominally, for these populations.

Talking Brexit with UK citizens living in France, I have seen firsthand how the negotiations have attenuated concerns over their continued right to residence in the places they call home. I have documented how they try to take matters into their own hands, through applying for residency permits and French citizenship, efforts that they hope will give them some security in the immediate future. These are the routes that individual citizens are taking through no-man’s land, but with no clear indicators that these actions will be met with the security they so desire.

But it is also clear that this is a landscape that officials too are struggling to navigate. The interviews with officials within EU member states that inform Next Steps show that for the most part—with a few exceptions—there has yet been very little planning around how to implement, both administratively and logistically, the arrangements regarding the rights of UK citizens resident within individual member states.

This is further complicated by uncertainty about which ministerial portfolios will have responsibility for governing these populations, as UK citizens switch legal status from mobile citizens to that of third country nationals.

The lack of clarity at a national level has to date meant that there has been limited formal direction supplied to local officials and agencies responsible for dealing with employment and administrative issues for UK citizens. These agencies are the face of the state for the UK citizens who have made their homes and lives in the EU27.

In my conversations with UK citizens living in France, it has been clear that the local prefecture has been their first port of call for considering how they might secure their residential status. And yet, their requests for residence permits have been met with a variety of responses by local bureaucrats: being told they are not eligible; being told they do not need them; being issued these without further question; and being told they will no longer be valid after Brexit.

What this example highlights is that in the absence of formal direction, local officials try to understand what Brexit means in terms of the future entitlements of UK citizens. Where this gets complicated is in the way that local officials try to navigate, on the one hand, a migration governance system tailored to the rights and entitlements of third country nationals and the existing provisions for EU nationals.

Considering the obviously permanent nature of residence permits, and the clarity of the UK’s exit date from the EU (29 March 2019), it is hardly surprising that local bureaucrats are themselves uncertain about what they should do when faced with UK citizens who are concerned and anxious for their futures.

To conclude, the report brings together the perspectives of UK citizens living in the EU27 with those of government officials and agencies in individual nation-states, uniquely revealing the shared challenge of navigating the no-man’s land in which these citizens currently find themselves.

There is an urgent need for clear maps that communicate what UK citizens residing in the EU27 can and should do to secure their residential status. Decisions need to be taken at the level of member state governments over who will have responsibility going forward for these UK citizens.

Further, local officials need formal direction about the routes to regularization for this soon-to-be migrant population. They might also be tasked, alongside British embassies and consuls, with communicating information about what Brexit means for the legal status of UK citizens and how they might go about regularizing their status once they become third country nationals.

For example, they could use their existing communication networks to circulate credible information about eligibility requirements for residence permits (temporary and permanent), the evidence required to support applications, and reassurance as to validity of these permits post-transition.

It is only in these ways that the political progress on citizens’ rights might translate into some certainty about the future for UK citizens living in the EU27, making clear to them what their options are in navigating no-man’s land.

By Michaela Benson, research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe and Reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Read the report here. This piece originally featured in The Telegraph.