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Brexit: What are Britons living in France supposed to do now?

The withdrawal deal that has been almost two years in the making was voted down this week by the largest parliamentary majority in democratic history. Here's some advice from Kalba Meadows who heads the campaign group Remain in France Together (RIFT).

Brexit: What are Britons living in France supposed to do now?
Photo: Deposit photos
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.

What exactly is France's plan for a no-deal Brexit?

Ring fencing
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.
Brexit: Brits in France must start preparing for the worst
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.
France activates emergency plan for no-deal Brexit
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.

Member comments

  1. Thank heavens for the commitment of the British In Europe group. Their timely information and advice, not to mention compresensive coverage of the salient news on Brexit (a thankful relief to all the extraneous noise coming out of the UK) goes a long way to help me plan my continued future here.

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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.