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BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

Member comments

  1. Just FYI, the hyperlink in “the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders” won’t show up for me as a subscriber to TheLocal.fr. It says it requires a separate subscription to the Norway version of The Local. It would be lovely if you could fix that.

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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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