Brexit Withdrawal Agreement: What is it and does it cover me?

As Brexit has dragged many people, mostly unwillingly, into the world of international trade treaties and EU immigration rules, we asked citizens' rights expert Kalba Meadows from France Rights to explain a few key things, starting with the Withdrawal Agreement.

Brexit Withdrawal Agreement: What is it and does it cover me?
That thing that looks like a menu is probably the most important document ever for Brits in France. Photo: AFP

I know that you’re quite probably exhausted and fed up with reading about Brexit and what it means … but don’t click away just yet because this article, one of a series, is about you and how your future life in France will pan out.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for us all to know exactly what’s in the Withdrawal Agreement, as it’s the international treaty that guarantees our rights for the rest of our lifetimes. 

You never know when you might need to refer to it: for example, if your boss questions your employment rights, if a local fonctionnaire makes life difficult, if you or your children need to go abroad for a period of time.

TELL US: Have you experienced problems with French authorities since Brexit?

We’re in an unprecedented situation, where a whole new status is being conferred on 1.2 million Brits living across the EU under a brand new international agreement. And while it gives us – at last – some much-needed certainty, the devil is in the implementation … which means that knowing what the Withdrawal Agreement says about your rights and what you can expect is really important for everyone.

So while it might not be the sexiest of subjects, it’s a pretty essential one to get your head around!

What is the Withdrawal Agreement?

It’s an international agreement between the EU and the UK that sets out how the UK’s EU membership will end. It covers the status and rights of both British citizens in the EU and EU nationals in the UK, the UK’s financial obligations, how the Irish border will continue to function and a transition period.

It doesn’t cover trade or any other aspects of the future relationship between UK and EU.

It came into effect on January 31st 2020. At that point, the transition period began. This lasts until December 31st 2020 (or longer if extended) and is a kind of standstill during which EU law, including freedom of movement rules, still applies to the UK and its citizens.

A key point: the Withdrawal Agreement remains in effect, and your rights will continue to be covered by it for your lifetime, whatever happens with the trade/future relationship negotiations – even if there is ‘no deal’ at all at the end of the transition period.

Where can I read the Withdrawal Agreement?

You can read it here (this will take you directly to Part Two, which deals with citizens’ rights) 

What happens to our rights during the transition period?

During this period our rights effectively remain the same as they are now (except for political and voting rights which ended on January 31st 2020, meaning that we can’t stand or vote in the upcoming municipal elections) and although we actually lost our EU citizenship on Brexit day, we will be treated like EU citizens through the whole of the transition period.

We retain all our current rights to freedom of movement throughout the transition period.

This means that during this period you can

  • Move from the UK to France or to any EU country. As long as you are legally resident (see here for what this means) at the end of the transition period, your future rights will be covered by the Withdrawal Agreement; and

  • Move from France to another EU country. If you do this during the transition period and meet the conditions for legal residence in your new host country, your future rights there will be covered by the Withdrawal Agreement (note that your period of residence will begin on the day you arrive in your new country – you would ‘lose’ the years accumulated in France).

  • Get your UK professional qualifications recognised under EU rules in France. If you have any of these for which you haven’t yet applied for recognition, you should do this now.

How is the Withdrawal Agreement different from France's no deal ordonnance and decree?

The no deal contingency plans and legislation that France and other EU countries produced relate only to a situation in which the UK leaves the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. This is no longer going to happen, so the legislation has no legal effect and will never come into force.

Under a no deal scenario, we would have defaulted to basic third country national status immediately on exit and our future rights would have been determined by national immigration law here in France along with the specific contingency measures in the ordonnance and decree. 

In this scenario UK citizens across the EU would have been treated differently according to where they lived, as each country’s no deal plans were different. 

The Withdrawal Agreement is different: all its citizens’ rights provisions must be implemented in every EU country, which means that France can’t decide to treat you less favourably than another country would, either now or in the future.

The Withdrawal Agreement protects you under international law

Part 2 of the Withdrawal Agreement contains detailed provisions on citizens’ rights which will apply to all British citizens living in the EU and to EU nationals living in the UK. Every EU state must adhere to it and implement the rights in it.

This means that France can’t downgrade your rights from those contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, now or in the future, or impose any extra conditions to obtain or retain your rights.

The Withdrawal Agreement is an international agreement and has what’s known as ‘direct effect’. This means that the rights it contains are directly binding in national law; you can rely on them directly before the courts even if the country where you are living doesn’t apply the provisions of the agreement correctly in national law. 

Any dispute is also subject to the jurisdiction of the European courts.

Who is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement?

You are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement if:

  • You are legally resident in France at the end of the transition period, and you continue to live here after this date. ‘Legally resident’ means that you meet the conditions that currently apply to you as an EU citizen exercising your free movement rights – find out more here.

  • You are also covered if you moved to France to become legally resident after Brexit day – January 31st 2020 – but before the end of the transition period, and you continue to live here after this date. ​

  • You are a family member of someone who meets either of the above conditions. You’re classed as a family member if your relationship to that person is that of spouse, registered partner, direct descendant (child, grandchild etc) who is under 21 OR who is older than this but dependent, or direct ascending relative (parent, grandparent etc) who is dependent.

  • You are a family member who had a derived right of residence in France before the end of transition following either the death or departure of an EU citizen or the divorce, annulment of marriage or termination of a registered partnership with an EU citizen in the past.  This would cover situations where the past relationship was with a British or other EU citizen as well as those where you as a family member are a British or non-EU citizen.

  • If you’re a family member who doesn’t fall within the definition above (for example, a dependent brother, sister or other non-direct family member) but are already resident, or have applied for residence before the end of transition. In the first case, you’ll keep your right of residence; in the second case, the Withdrawal Agreement says that France has to ‘facilitate entry and residence’ and this is subject to conditions.

  • If you’re in an unregistered partnership but are in a ‘durable relationship’ and are already resident, your partner will keep their right of residence. If your partner applied for residence before the end of transition or was living outside France at the end of transition and applied later, France has to ‘facilitate entry and residence’ for that partner in accordance with its national legislation, providing the relationship was already durable at the end of the transition period. This is more stringent than the conditions for other close family members. 

  • If you have children (including by legal adoption) AFTER the end of the transition period they also are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement if (a) you and the other parent are both covered by the WA; or (b) one parent is covered by the WA and the other is a national of France; or (c) one parent is covered by the WA and has sole or joint custody rights of the child.

Important: your rights will be covered by the Withdrawal Agreement only in the country where you are living at the end of the transition period. They are not transportable to another EU country after that time.​ 

For a longer version of this article, please see the France Rights website.

Kalba Meadows works with both British in Europe and France Rights, organisations dedicated to protecting the rights of British citizens living in the EU. Find out more here.

For information on driving, healthcare, travel and pets after Brexit, visit our Preparing for Brexit section.


Member comments

  1. Nobody seems to know. What happens to my carte vitals? After 35 years in England we moved back to my wife’s village 13 years ago. Initially my carte vitals came under my wife but last year it changed to mine. If anybody has Information please publish an article.

  2. The latest position is that its no longer covered by your wife’s bottom (as opposed to previously it was under your dear lady wife). It seems that you should without delay refer to the French Government on line site in English and submit a carte d’Sejour application. Presumably you can produce evidence of being here for more than 5 years, pay French tax and have sufficient income as per the rules and have no convictions other than odd grammar

  3. Thanks. We’ve been living here for 13 years in my wif’s birth village. I have sufficient income but because it comes from uk government as retired ex teacher I am obliged to pay tax in the UK but it appears on our tax form here and has a considerable effect on out French tax payments. We own our own hous and not only have no debts but several thousand euros in the bank and we both have a mutuelle. As for it being in English I would prefer it to be in French but smiled at your last comment. It seems that a new system will be in place on July 1st. Not many Brits her

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For members


Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”