It was supposed to be the top priority of Brexit negotiations, the easiest issue to deal with given the goodwill for it declared on both sides. And yet, London and Brussels can't reach an agreement on the fate of the 3.2 million European citizens residing in the United Kingdom and of the 1.2 million British citizens living in Europe. While the European Union has devoted much attention to their citizens in the UK, British citizens in Europe feel their government has forgotten them.
Our life is on hold
"We're being completely ignored," laments Kathryn Dobson, who lives in France's western region Poitou-Charentes, where she publishes Living, a magazine for British expats in France. Dobson's family left Britain 15 years ago. She's now worried about the fate of her magazine as well as her future and that of her three daughters, aged 15 to 20.
"Our life is on hold," she says. "Our government hasn't taken into account the complexity of our situation."
One of her daughters, Emily, 18, a British citizen who grew up in France, is spending the second year of her management studies degree in the Netherlands as part of the Erasmus exchange program. As a citizen of a former member of the EU, she benefited from a special tuition fee and a grant form the French government. But nothing guarantees that her rights will be maintained after Brexit. In the meantime, she's initiated a procedure to obtain French citizenship and her mother is considering doing the same.
"Banksy does Brexit" — Photo: Duncan Hull/Flickr
The situation certainly remains murky. The European bloc's proposals cast doubt on the ability of British citizens to move freely on the continent. They could end up under "house arrest" in the country they are residing in when Brexit is applied, unable to travel elsewhere in Europe.
"If you live in Luxembourg and work in Brussels like I do, this is catastrophic," says Fiona Godfrey, a public health consultant and founder of the association British Immigrants Living in Luxembourg (Brill). She wants to believe that there's still hope for a favorable solution by the end of the next round of British-EU negotiations in late August.
Not all British expats are waiting. Some have already started to seek European citizenship.
60% of British citizens would like to be European after Brexit.
According to a survey conducted by Brill, 70% of British nationals living in Luxembourg are doing just that. But they can only do so if they've been residing in the country for at least five years and if they pass the test for local language Luxembourgish.
This option doesn't exist in nine European countries that don't authorize dual citizenship. In the union's remaining nations, "the criteria vary from country to country, and even, from region to region, like in Germany for example," explains Daniel Tetlow, vice-president of the Berlin-based association British in Europe. The organization already boasts 35,000 members and adds 50 to 100 new ones every day. "It's the first time that Brits in Europe have had to organize. There's a lot that needs to be done to fight against the lack of understanding regarding our status, even among British politicians."
A growing number of British nationals no longer believe in the promises from London and Brussels that assure them that nobody is going to be deported. They now believe that any agreement to safeguard their status depends on Brexit negotiations on finance, trade, and the like. There are no guarantees these talks will be successful. This attitude explains why British nationals are now rushing to obtain their European passports. According to a study by the London School of Economics, 60% of these citizens would like to be European after Brexit. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.
Even those nationals who live in Britain are said to be looking for ways to obtain a second passport. So they've started to explore their family trees. Some 10% of British citizens can become Irish nationals if they have at least one grandparent from Ireland. As a result, the demand for Irish passports in the UK has doubled since the British referendum to leave Europe.
There are other possibilities. Jews of German origin are trying to obtain German nationality. Others are looking into Portugal and Lithuania — countries that offer similar naturalization mechanisms. For a part of the British population disgusted by Brexit, it's about having a way out of the mess.
"I know more Brits who've left the UK since the referendum than Brits who've returned," Tetlow says.
See more from Culture / Society here