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Brexit: Life for Brits in France will get more complicated

After Britain voted to leave the EU, here's a look at what an EU legal expert had to say about the possible knock on effects for expats in France.

Brexit: Life for Brits in France will get more complicated
Will France still be paradise for British expats after a Brexit? Photo: Simon/FlickR

George Peretz, a QC specialising in EU and public law, who is hoping to retire to France examines what might happen to the rights of Brits in France in the event of Brexit.

The principle of EU law means that every Brit living or owning property elsewhere in the EU has a vast range of legal rights: to work, to run a business, to buy property, to live where they like, to use public services such as health, to pay no more taxes than locals, to vote in local elections and so on.

Depending on the final outcome of any post-Brexit deal, all of those rights could vanish if the UK leaves the EU.

In short Brexit would throw everything into the air and we don’t know where or how it will all land. 

Britain would have to negotiate with the EU as a bloc and if some eastern European countries are not happy with their nationals being barred from working in Britain then countries like France and Germany could stand with them.

Of course people won’t be just sent back on the next flight. That’s just scaremongering. Nothing will immediately or drastically change, but it will certainly become more complicated for people to go and live in France.

People talk about the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the European convention on Human Rights but it is hard to see that they would give Brits continuing right to be treated as an EU citizen in the years after Brexit, when it came to matters such as the rights to work, not to pay extra taxes, to use public health care, to buy further property or even to carry on living in the host country.

Further, it would be for the courts and lawmakers to interpret and apply this rule.

'Barred from buying houses in certain areas?'

If you have ever tried to live outside the EU, you know how many hoops you have to jump through.

At the moment when it comes to buying property Spain couldn’t say to Germans or British that they can’t buy houses in certain areas, but they could to Americans. But if there’s a Brexit then all these rights just vanish. There’s no legal basis for them.

It may well be that France decides to continue as things stand but there’s absolutely no guarantee of that. We can’t expect people to behave rationally after a Brexit.

You are not going to have to sell your house and it’s not going to mean no one can go to live in France, but it’s going to get more complicated.

Brexit campaigners say “well, Brits used to live in France before the EU”, which is true but it was only the stinking rich. Of course they could stay in France, they probably didn’t need to work.

We are talking about teachers or other middle income groups, who want to sell up and go and live in the French countryside. France could theoretically say ‘we don’t want foreigners buying in certain areas like Paris or the Riviera because locals are getting pushed out'.

'Taxes on second homes to rise?'

There could be changes to people who have second homes and rent them out. France already tried to impose social charges on Brits renting their second homes out, but it was ruled illegal by the European court of Justice.

But it wouldn’t be illegal if Britain opted for a Brexit and the French could try to impose that tax again, because let’s face it, any attempt to impose taxes on foreigners will go down well in France, in the current climate.

Britons would also lose the right to vote in French local elections as is their right as EU citizens. Remember also that many British people are elected as local councillors in some parts of the country. But once Britain votes for Brexit it would become impossible.

There are other areas like work permits that will be affected. Think of ski instructors in the Alps. The French have been difficult about this in the past by forcing British ski instructors to take French qualifications.

If this was after Brexit then EU Competition authorities would not be able to intervene at all. The French could do what they like to stop Brits working as ski instructors.

'It's bound to get harder for Brits to get jobs'

All sorts of barriers to work could be raised. They are bound to make it harder for Brits to get jobs, especially given the fact France is under pressure to cut unemployment.

Countries look after their own. That’s not scare-mongering it’s just what they do.

People with lots of qualifications will probably be OK, but for those who come over to work in bars or in removals or as an estate agent for example, it may become harder.

People who suggest Brits in France will just have to give up their jobs are scaremongering but the whole horizon is going to alter.

We just forget that we’ve all been living in this world where we’ve just assumed that we could easily go and get a job abroad if we want to.  

People who say a Brexit would mean Britain can keep all the benefits of living in the EU and simply lose the downsides are living in a fairy land.

 

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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