If current events were a novel, it would be a compulsive read – no doubt one that would keep us all up well into the small hours reading frantically to find out what happens in the end. I suspect though we’d read it with a soupçon of disbelief … surely that could never happen in real life, we’d say.
Yet it is happening, and here we are, living through the most chaotic and uncertain times in generations.
The withdrawal deal that has been almost two years in the making – and which would govern the rights of British citizens living in the EU – after Brexit has been voted down by the largest parliamentary majority in democratic history. So where does all this leave Britons in France?
With just 71 days to go we’re no further forward in knowing what our rights as citizens would be after Brexit. At British in Europe and Remain in France Together we’re only too aware that this kind of prolonged uncertainty is becoming a kind of ongoing mental torture for many. In fact as long ago as January 2017 I gave written evidence to the Exiting the EU Committee on this very issue, never believing for a minute that almost exactly 2 years later we’d still be waiting for clarity.
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We believe that this situation is unacceptable, and today we’re renewing our calls for the ringfencing of the citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement.
What does this mean? It means asking the EU and the UK to sign and implement under Article 50 the citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement now, or at least to commit now unequivocally in a joint political statement that this will be done prior to Brexit coming into force.
We strongly believe this to be the only humane and just solution when the lives and livelihoods of 5 million people on both sides of the Channel are at stake – people whose only ‘crime’ has been to exercise our legal rights to free movement, and to help make the EU what it is today.
Yesterday British in Europe wrote to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to the EU27 Heads of State in the European Council, to Michel Barnier and to Guy Verhofstadt asking once again for this and stating clearly that we don’t feel that the Council has adequately defended the rights of its citizens.
The next two months
Without some positive action by the government the UK will crash out of the EU by default on March 29th.
Writing this afternoon, it’s still hard to see what form such positive action might take – the Withdrawal Agreement was voted down by different factions of the House for quite different reasons, Labour is refusing so far to engage with cross-party talks, and there’s little or no agreement so far on where to go next.
Everything hangs now on whether there is any political will for genuine compromise and cross-party consensus.
No deal and living in France
In a worst case scenario – that of no deal – Britons living in France and the rest of the EU would become fully fledged third country nationals at midnight on the day the UK leaves the EU, currently set at 29 March although there is some talk of a possible extension. That’s the bad news.
And the good news? It’s this: the French government has passed its emergency legislation allowing it to issue ordonnances which would provide interim protection for the rights of all of us who are legally resident on exit day.
An ordonnance is a statutory instrument issued by the Council of Ministers that covers an area of law usually reserved for primary legislation so it’s not without controversy, but in this case it’s really the only effective way of making sure that we don’t all turn into illegal immigrants overnight.
Today, after a meeting at Matignon, Edouard Philippe announced that given the current political situation in the UK France was launching its emergency no deal plan.
Five ordonnances will be adopted by the Council of Ministers from next Wednesday, 23 January. The one that covers our citizens' rights will include this:
1. There will be a 12 month transition period during which a carte de séjour will not be required. This is a derogation from the normal rules for third country nationals, who must hold a CdS to be legal and therefore means that nobody will become illegal, or be unable to work, overnight.
2. Those with 5 years or more residence will then have to apply for cartes de résident – we expect this to be the carte de résident longue durée as this is what the European Commission is recommending, but this is still to be confirmed. We also expect there would be no requirement to meet the conditions required for other third country nationals; and we'd likewise expect those without CdS currently to be able to apply for the new card under the current (EU) conditions.
This is what we've been given to understand in our meetings, but obviously there's much here that needs verifying. We’ll be doing that over the next weeks and will keep everyone here informed.
3. Those with less than 5 years residence will have to apply for one of the existing cartes de séjour or cartes de résident for those with shorter term residence, but will do so with more favourable conditions – again, we hope, the same as for EU citizens.
4. Those holding current cartes de séjour would need to exchange them within the transition period for a new card representing their new status. We understand that this would most likely be effectively a simple exchange, with only proof of ongoing residence required, though this is still to be confirmed.
These provisions will only apply in the case of no deal, and only to those who are legally resident in France on 29 March. There is much else to follow up, including the exact position on health care, and you can rest assured that we’ll be doing all of that that over the next weeks, but for now a little patience is needed!
The fat lady hasn’t sung yet
A note of caution: what we're talking about here – as in every EU27 country that is now publishing its no deal planning for citizens – is a unilateral guarantee. This really is a bottom-of-the-pile guarantee, far worse than that contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, which is an internationally binding treaty.
It's better than nothing, of course, but don't celebrate too much – we really need to be holding out for ring-fencing of the provisions of the WA for citizens' rights, as you saw in the letter to Donald Tusk above.
Although we at British in Europe are working continuously with all the 27 countries on their no deal proposals, we won't rest or settle for 27 different unilateral guarantees until the point where the chance of a properly binding international treaty on citizens' rights has gone completely out of the window.
What should you be doing now?
The most important thing you can be doing right now is to make sure that you meet the conditions for legal residence in France and that you’ve applied for your carte de séjour as an EU citizen.
Everyone will have to have a carte de séjour after Brexit, deal or no deal, and although any card that you obtain now will eventually have to be swapped for a post-Brexit version, this would be a much simpler and faster procedure than making a first application after Brexit.
It also means that you have proof of your legal residence in France, which would make cross-border travel much simpler, especially if there were no deal. You can find out more about your rights as a citizen living in France and about how to apply for a carte de séjour on the Remain in France Together.
There’s one other thing that you should be doing – or rather, not doing: please don’t panic! Remember that you’re not alone: there are people fighting your corner, and there are many, many other people going through what you’re going through. If you’re struggling and you need a bit of friendly support, or maybe some advice on your personal situation, or even just to link up with others for a bit of solidarity, you’d be very welcome to join the Remain in France Facebook
group: with over 11,000 members there’s always someone around to listen or help.
And if you prefer not to discuss your situation publicly, our citizens’ rights team is always willing to help you via private message.
Kalba Meadows is a member of the steering committee of British in Europe and citizens’ rights coordinator of Remain in France Together.