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Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

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Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights
British in Italy campaigners in Florence before British PM Theresa May gave a speech in September 2017.
16:25 CET+01:00
As most Britons living in Europe were still reeling from the shock of the 2016 Brexit referendum, a small number of individuals and groups began to come together realising they faced a huge fight to protect rights that had always been taken for granted. This is their story.

To find out how this movement began from another campaign to secure the vote for millions of disenfranchised Brits abroad, read Part One of this story. Part Three: January 11th.

Ask most British nationals living abroad where they were that night Britain voted to leave the EU and they can remember.

Some watched in tears in their living rooms, others were left to console themselves in the waiting room of an airport. 

Most Brits living in the EU watched the coverage in horror as they realised the shock Brexit referendum result would change their lives forever. And what made it worse for many of them was that they had not even been allowed to vote.

“On the night of the referendum a group of friends came to my house and watched the results come in,” Fiona Godfrey, co-founder and co-chair of citizens’ rights umbrella group British in Europe, tells The Local.

“People were sitting on my living room floor crying," she adds.

Fiona Godfrey, co-chair of British in Europe. Photo: Fiona Godfrey. 

The day after the vote, UK nationals across Europe – expert estimates for the size of the community vary from 1.2 million to 3.6 million – found themselves facing a future full of uncertainty and anxiety.

They had opted to build a life in Europe based on the rights EU treaties afforded them. With Britain voting to leave the Union and to renegotiate all aspects of its relationship with the 27-country bloc, the futures of UK nationals in Europe and EU nationals in the UK were suddenly shrouded in doubt.

The 1.2 million Brits in Europe feared - and still have reason to given the threat of a no-deal Brexit - losing access to jobs, family reunification rights, healthcare, education, social services – their lives as they know them. The same is true for at least 3 million EU nationals living in the UK. 

A map with the official number of UK nationals registered (as of January 2018) as living in each EU27 country. Image: The Local.

But some were not prepared to take it lying down.

As the mourning after the referendum continued, ordinary citizens across Europe began to morph into the largest British citizenship rights campaign for decades. At first, nobody knew they were part of something bigger than their own anger.

Watershed moments

“The feeling of rage drove us to do something,” recalls Jeremy Morgan, a British lawyer who is based in central Italy.

He and his partner Delia Dumaresq recall “being in tears at 6 am at Stansted Airport” the day after the referendum.

“It came out of the strength of feeling, of people who have exercised their rights," he said.

Morgan and Dumaresq began to brainstorm with other Brits in Italy about what they could do. Journalist Patricia Clough and financial advisor Gareth Horsfall helped trace a web through the British community in Italy. The couple were also put in touch with journalist Giles Tremlett, who was active on the campaign for dual citizenship in Spain.

Delia Dumaresq (far left) and Jeremy Morgan (second from left) address a meeting on citizenship rights on November 20th, 2018, in Venice. Photo: British in Italy. 

In Berlin, France and Luxembourg, other groups of UK nationals had began organising themselves and creating networks.

Fiona Godfrey, 53, a British global health campaigner in Luxembourg, and a group of friends had their lightbulb moment soon after the referendum. “We went for a drink and said we must do something,” recalls Godfrey. Within 24 hours of setting up a Facebook group in July 2016, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s 6,000 Brits had joined.

Across Europe, Brits had experienced Brexit as a similar watershed moment. In Berlin, a group of campaigners who had worked on the Votes for Life campaign began to realise they had to shift the focus to citizenship rights.

British in Germany was born out of “the realisation that British citizens would have to fight for maintaining their citizenship rights in the EU,” recalls Daniel Tetlow, a British media professional in Berlin and a founder of British in Germany together with Jane Golding.

"Being heard and recognised as a serious constituency of Brits," was the objective.

Golding, a British lawyer based in Berlin who became co-chair of the umbrella group British in Europe said: “We held a series of events on how the referendum could impact people. A lot of people’s lives were going to be affected," she recalls.

“People asked: What is going to happen to us? Will you be there for us? Will you be there to protect our rights after the referendum?"

READ ALSO: How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One

 (Jane Golding, fourth from the right and Kalba Meadows to her right deliver a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo British in Europe)

In France, meanwhile, UK nationals also independently established groups to voice their concerns about how their lives would be affected – groups such as ECREU and Remain in France Together (RIFT).

RIFT, run by former social worker Kalba Meadows, now counts more than 11,000 members. “As we approached 2017 it was becoming apparent that we’d need to start standing up for ourselves,” Meadows, who moved to Ariége in France over a decade ago, tells The Local. 

Such fighting talk could be heard from Brits across Europe after the referendum. Groups like New Europeans were joining the battle.

The NGO, set up in 2013 by the former Labour MP for Wimbledon Roger Casale, had done a lot of work on raising awareness of what could happen to the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in Europe even long before the referendum.

"When we set up in 2013 and we used to tell people about how a referendum could affect EU citizens' rights and the rights of Brits in Europe, people used to say: What are you talking about?" Casale tells The Local. 

Casale's New Europeans, an organisation based in London and Brussels with 1,200 members who each pay €30 per year, helped bring together some of the key figures who went on to lead British in Europe and the3Million, which represents EU nationals living in the UK.

"I introduced Nicolas Hatton (chair of the3million) to Jane Golding (co-chair of British in Europe)," Casale recalls, adding that New Europeans provided a platform, via their webinars, for both activists to voice their early concerns and arguments about citizens' rights.

Such interventions from existing organisations were clearly key. But with Brexit, perhaps for the first time, thousands of UK nationals living in Europe were driven to a campaign to resist the threat to their European identity independently of any core leadership. 

“Brexit had wiped me out emotionally,” Laura Shields, a media trainer based in Brussels, told The Local. “I thought: I can either sit here and complain or I can go and do something.” Owner of a her own company and the mother of a five-year-old, Shields says she identifies herself as "a European." 

A chance encounter led to her joining the movement. 

British in Europe spokeswoman Laura Shields, owner of media training company Red Thread in Brussels. Photo: Red Thread. 

A former chair of Liberal Democrats in the EU, Shields had met Jane Golding at an event in Brussels in 2017. 

“British in Europe didn’t have a press person, they were mainly all legal people,” she recalls. “We did some stuff on the Withdrawal Agreement. After that I just hung around,” says Shields, who has been British in Europe’s spokesperson ever since.

Conference call dates were pencilled in and Facebook groups conceived. Wynne Edwards of Fair Deal for Expats played a vital role by setting up the first conference calls that helped bring the different groups together to talk, with Jane Golding presiding as chair and moderator by January 2017.  This is how networks in each country became aware of their counterpart cells across the EU. 

Fears of ending up as third country nationals - an outcome that appears increasingly possible given the threat of a no-deal Brexit - was what drove campaigners on in the early days.

Chance meetings soon helped turn the concerns of a handful of worried Brits into a pan-European movement. For Jeremy Morgan and Delia Dumaresq, who founded British in Italy, an encounter at a bookstore in London helped them get audiences with politicians back home in Italy.

“We went along to the Italian Bookstore and were put in touch with the Democratic Party (PD) organiser in London, Roberto Stasi. He in turn put us in touch with other Democratic Party (PD) politicians in Italy,” recalls Morgan, who together with Jane Golding, helped shape British in Europe’s core legal texts.

That meeting at the bookstore led to other meetings with politicians in Italy, as well as an invite to give evidence before a joint senatorial committee.

Morgan had been exposed to campaigning through his work establishing law centres in the UK; Dumaresq had been involved in women’s rights campaigns in the 1970s, while Fiona Godfrey is a professional lobbyist.

Shields, Golding, and Roger Boaden – founder of ECREU, a British citizens in France group – had each worked for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives respectively. The issue of rights for families, communities and children cuts beyond party allegiances. 

While the first living cells of the post-referendum movement were formed as early as the day after the vote, it was a hearing in the UK’s Parliament that galvanised the groups and brought many of them face-to-face for the first time.

(Jane Golding speaks to fellow campaigners at a march calling for a People's Vote. Photo: BiE.)

A movement is born

“January 2017 was the start of the organisation as it is now,” recalls Jane Golding of British in Europe.

Golding had been invited to give evidence to the Exiting the European Union Select Committee at a hearing at the British parliament in London on how Brexit would affect UK nationals living in Europe.

“We felt we needed to have a representative group of people,” recalls Golding. Morgan and Golding met around Christmas 2016 and began to shape “the flagship paper which put out what we were seeing.”

Four people were selected to give evidence and were coached by the legal wisdom of Morgan and Golding.

“Our main concern is the loss of EU citizenship and the rights devolving from it: the right to remain, healthcare arrangements under the EU social security agreements, and pension entitlements and payments,” Christopher Chantrey, a British resident in France and one of the selected four told the House of Commons select committee.

Golding says the hearing forced the groups to identify what they were concerned about: “A bundle of interlinked rights that people had for life and were irrevocable. People had the legitimate expectation that they were for life,” states Golding.

Those rights include the right to freedom of movement, recognition of qualifications, the lifelong right to remain and many more. 

READ ALSO: Quiz: How well do you know Brexit?

The select committee hearing brought together the issues of UK nationals in Europe and those of EU nationals in the UK, with British in Europe and the3million having since joined forces to campaign for their rights in Westminster, Brussels and EU-wide.

“The hearing was quintessential in us working together and uniting,” recalls Golding, not only of the partnership with the3million, but for British in Europe itself as an organization. Around 10 UK nationals who had established groups in one country came together under the umbrella of British in Europe.

In the last two years, British in Europe and its offshoot movements have nevertheless gone from strength to strength, securing meetings with, as well as the support of, top negotiators, political figures and foreign offices across the EU.

Kalba Meadows has been a key part of that work.

Meadows, one of the founders of Remain in France Together (RIFT), had been an active campaigner in the UK but left all that behind for a quiet life in the French Pyrenees.

Brexit brought Meadows back into the campaigning landscape. “I didn’t need much excuse to reawaken my inner campaigner,” she says.

But uniting under British in Europe was nevertheless transformational. 

“I went from being a ‘lone voice’ in the wilds of rural France to part of a group of citizens’ rights campaigners right across the EU27,” says Meadows.

If Brits had failed to take an interest in the referendum before the vote, those living in Europe have tried to compensate since. Brexit has even made campaigners of British expats who had previously taken little interest in politics. 

“I had been blissfully ignorant of UK politics in particular, but I learnt fast,” Sue Wilson, who founded the citizens campaign group Bremain in Spain in late 2016, told The Local.

Wilson says it took her three weeks just to get over the “shock,anger, sadness and depression caused by the result of the referendum.” Three months later Bremain in Spain, a group which now counts thousands of Brits in Spain as members, was born.

Sue Wilson, 65, a resident of Alcossebre, Castellon Province in the Valencian Community and founder of Bremain in Spain. Photo: Susan Wilson. 

Since then, Wilson says she has worked 70 hours a week.

She says her objective is "to protect the rights of British citizens in the EU.

"She adds that there is only one way to really do that: stop Brexit completely.

With just over 80 days until Britain will officially no longer be a member of the EU, stopping Brexit at this stage seems like wishful thinking, unless something extraordinary happens in parliament and a second referendum or general election is called. 

But whatever happens over the next few weeks the campaigning will likely go on.

The fact that it is personal has helped. “We are the people affected as well as the people campaigning,” says Jane Golding.

But the campaign is ultimately about more than nationality. “The outrage is over the deprivation of rights both sides of the channel,” says British in Italy’s Jeremy Morgan.

To find out how this story concludes and what British in Europe have achieved in the two years since the organisation's inception, make sure you read Part Three in our newsletter on January 11th. 

 

You can sign up here for our 'Europe & You' weekly newsletter on Brexit from the perspective of Brits in Europe and the EU27.

READ MORE: How Brexit is fuelling stress and anxiety for vulnerable Brits in Europe 

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Brian - 03 Jan 2019 16:35
The people were asked to stay or exit, they chose to exit, anything else is undemocratic and a slap in the face of people who voted to exit the EU.
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