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‘Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try’

The EU says it won't negotiate "mini deals" and the "contemptuous" UK government doesn't seem interested in actively pursuing the Costa Amendment. But legal experts say ring-fencing the rights of Britons in the EU is achievable if it was just made a priority.

'Securing rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try'
Photo: vchalup2/Depositphotos

Since June 24th 2016, British citizens in the EU have anxiously awaited news of how their future status in their host countries could change with the UK’s departure from the bloc.

Last week’s so-called Costa Amendment offered renewed hope after nearly 1,000 days in limbo. The amendment, passed by the British parliament, calls for Theresa May’s government to “seek at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

This would effectively mean to secure a deal with the EU to ring-fence the citizens rights of 3.6 million citizens in the UK and 1.2 million Britons residing in the EU – regardless of the outcome of ongoing negotiations and regardless of whether her deal is ratified by parliament.

In a follow-up letter to the EU institutions on March 4th, the UK’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Steven Barclay suggested the UK government has taken a halfhearted approach to the Costa Amendment. 

“The Government’s position remains that the Withdrawal Agreement provides the best way of providing confidence to citizens,” wrote Barclay. “The Prime Minister made clear during her statement to the House on 26th February that the Government recognises the significant challenges related to concluding a ring-fenced agreement,” added Barclay.

READ ALSO: What happens next in the fight to protect citizens' rights?

Rights activists responded with indignation to Barclay’s lukewarm effort to negotiate an international treaty on citizens’ rights with the EU.

“It seems completely contemptuous of the Costa motion,” Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy and one of the key legal experts at rights group British in Europe, told The Local. “They have been given a clear mandate by the UK parliament but they have watered it down so it doesn’t mean anything. It shows what Prime Minister May’s priorities are and citizenship rights are not one,” added Morgan.

Morgan argues that there is legal scope for such an international treaty as called for by the Costa Amendment. “Legally it is not a problem. It doesn’t say how they should reach an agreement. It just requires them to try,” says Morgan, who added that British in Europe will “be lobbying the EU very hard” in order for the idea of ring-fencing to be taken seriously.

Last week, the EU Commission said that it would not be willing to negotiate the citizens’ rights aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement separately, although that may simply have been hard talk in the ongoing negotiations and that stance was largely expected.

“The best way to protect the rights of 4.5 million citizens is through the Withdrawal Agreement,” said Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. “We will not negotiate mini deals,” added Andreeva at a press conference on February 28th. The EU Commission had not responded to Barclay’s letter at the time of writing.

The EU has repeatedly asked the UK government to give a clear idea of its desires and intentions in the Brexit process. As Delia Dumaresq, co-chair of British in Italy points out: “The only thing that has the full agreement of the UK parliament is ring-fencing citizens’ rights.”

Jeremy Morgan QC, co-chair of British in Italy adds that with the right political will, and an extension to Article 50, such a treaty on citizenship rights could be achieved – and the extension could be justified to that end. The EU Council would simply need to adapt its negotiating guidelines. 

While the EU has officially said it won’t negotiate citizens rights separately on a pan-European basis, a former Commission official told The Local the most likely way the EU would agree to ring-fence citizens' rights, at least temporarily, was by simply extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit. 

“I would expect the EU to be quite sympathetic to this,” said the former Commission official, who did not want to be named.

“The EU has to be concerned with the rights of its citizens in the UK and wants to protect them.” 

But this kind of short term fix is not what campaigners for the UK citizens in the EU and EU nationals in the UK want.

“What we're after here isn't any old agreement, but an agreement under Article 50 which becomes a legally binding international treaty,” Kalba Meadows, a member of rights group British in Europe, told The Local.  

But with just three weeks to go before their lives are potentially turned upside down, some 4.5 million Britons in Europe and Europeans in the UK still don't appear to be a big enough priority for the EU or the UK.

READ MORE: What happens next in the fight to protect rights of Britons in Europe?

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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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