Brexit: The Withdrawal Agreement won’t stop Brits in France ‘falling through the gaps’

Brexit: The Withdrawal Agreement won't stop Brits in France 'falling through the gaps'
Photo by Frederick Tubiermont on Unsplash
Researcher Michaela Benson has been studying the impact of Brexit on Britons in France. She tells The Local why the Withdrawal Agreement will do little to ease anxieties and says only time will tell how many Britons will "fall through the gaps" and perhaps end up living in France undocumented.

Since June 2017, Dr Michaela Benson – a British researcher from Goldsmiths University in London – has interviewed more than 100 Britons in France to find out how the long, drawn-out Brexit process has impacted them both emotionally and materially.

Before the shock 2016 referendum result Brits in France were hardly “scrutinised” by French authorities because, just like in the UK, there was no requirement to register as residents.

But since then they have been forced to emerge and show their faces to French officials whom they must now convince they are and have been legally resident here.

READ ALSO So you're living in France, but are you legally resident here?

AFP

While thousands have gone down the route of seeking citizenship most –  encouraged by French officials and the British embassy, applied for a Carte de Séjour residency permit.

That was until uncertainty around a no-deal Brexit and the sheer number of applicants forced authorities in many parts of France to put a temporary halt on applications.

Thousands more have done nothing, preferring to wait until the future is a little clearer.

With the British parliament giving the Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement the green light on Wednesday, it's now almost a formality that Brexit will happen on January 31st.

Withdrawal Agreement won't ease anxiety

While Brexit might at least mark the end of three and a half years of limbo for Britons in France, it's unlikely to really encourage them to feel more secure about their futures.

“It's alarming from the point of view of people's lives. The WIthdrawal Agreement doesn't provide them with any certainty,” Benson tells The Local.
 
“Regardless of how they are treated and the reassurances from governments it's the fact they lack legal certainty which is alarming them. People want to be sure of their futures but they are not sure about what they need to do.
 
“There's been three and a half years of prolonged uncertainty and they will not have their lives put at ease simply by the Withdrawal Agreement being passed.”
 
 
AFP
 
As she states in her recent article titled “Brexit and the Classed Politics of Bordering” Britons in France are affected by Brexit unevenly and while many can adjust to the change in status others are not well placed to respond to the challenges of Brexit.
 
While the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) “offers new legislation to support the continued residence of those Britons who have lawfully exercised their treaty rights as EU citizens, it remains to be seen how individual member states will implement the terms of this deal for British citizens living within their borders.”
 
Even at this late stage Britons in France are still waiting to find out how the French government will implement the terms of the WA.
 
No one is blaming France however. After all the political uncertainty and no-deal posturing in the UK over the last three years, it's no surprise the French are waiting until Britain is finally out of the door with the divorce papers signed before moving on.
 
Devastating to be turned down for residency
 
But given that up until late last year Britons were being encouraged to come forward and apply for residency, it has meant some have unfortunately found out they don't meet the legal requirements.
 
Benson has been in touch a small number of Britons who have lived in France for many years but have been turned down for a residency permit.
 
She met Leigh who has owned a house in Brittany since 2004 and lived permanently in France since 2012.
 
She quotes Leigh saying: “I been here full time living and working, paying into society since 2012 . . . I had cancer in 2014 so had a low income as a micro-entrepreneur [small-scale entrepreneur] for several years in my recovery stage. I’ve been refused a carte de séjour twice.”

Benson believes Leigh is just one of the first to “fall between the gaps”.

READ ALSO What the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement means for British people in France

The Local was also contacted by a British pensioner, living in the south west who was turned down for a carte de séjour over a combination of the fact his main income was through French welfare benefits and that he mistakenly had not declared his very small British pension to French tax authorities.

He has since moved to retroactively declare his pension and has appealed the verdict.

Benson believes cases like this could just the be the tip of the iceberg.

“To be turned down for residency is devastating, that's the only word for it,” she says.
 
“There's only been a small number turned down but it could be the tip of the iceberg. Most are under appeal, they are not final.
 
“Many British citizens haven't actually done anything because they are not sure what to do. It's important these cases come forward.”
 
Before Brexit people didn't realise Freedom of Movement was conditional
 
Benson says part of the problem stems from the fact many did not appreciate Freedom of Movement wasn't unconditional added to the fact that up until recently Brits have not been forced to justify their presence in France to French authorities.
 
“It's remarkable that before Brexit a lot of people didn't understand that Freedom of Movement was a conditional right,” she says.
 
“Brits in France find themselves in an unprecedented situation. Having the legal terms of their status called into question is not a situation you would wish on anyone,” she said.

“People are confused. Part of the problem is that in France people were never questioned about their right to be there permanently.

“They just thought I'll go and live in another country and have the rights and benefits provided by the EU. It's been a very steep learning curve since Brexit as people have realised Freedom of Movement was conditional and they would now be evaluated on strict terms.
 
“This has proved devastating and worrying for people,” Benson says.
 
In some cases Britons are already being judged on new criteria even if they remain EU citizens effectively until the end of December.
 
She was contacted by one young British woman who said she had been told not to bother turning up for a job interview unless she had a Carte de Séjour, even though at that point there was no legal requirement to do so.
 
Will more Brits become 'undocumented'?

 
She believes the inevitable effect of people fearing or indeed knowing they do not meet the legal requirements for residence is France is that they go off radar.
 
“What's likely to happen, and we've seen this with other EU nationals, is that more people will become 'undocumented' or unlawfully resident in France,” says Benson.
 
“There's always been Europeans living like this. There are many reasons why people might live undocumented. Some may have the right to reside in a country but just don't have the documentation.”
 
People like 70-year-old widow Pam, whom Benson tracked down at her rundown home in the Lot, southern France, where she had lived since 2000, surviving mainly on a meagre state pension.
 
“When we came to the discussion of what she might do, it became clear that she did not have the luxury of dwelling on the possible routes that she might take to secure her future. She was focused on living from one day to the next,” Benson writes in her article.
 
How many Brits in France will be in Pam's situation? The reality is we might never find out how many Brexit has pushed into the shadows.
 
Benson writes: “Only time will tell who falls between the gaps when existing legislation is enforced and new legislation brought in. What is clear is that in the process some British citizens living in France will be recast as ‘deserving citizens’, deemed of value to the states in which they live, while others will be cast aside.”
 
 
 
Dr Michaela Benson is a Reader in Sociology based at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is known for her research into British emigration, and most recently her leadership of the UK in a Changing Europe funded research project (2017-19), BrExpats: Freedom of Movement, Citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons living in the EU-27 (https://brextibritsabroad.org), which explored in detail what Brexit means to and for Britons resident in the EU27.
 

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