InFacts has previously written about the 1.2 million or so expat Britons who live in the EU. Below, George Peretz, a QC specialising in EU and public law, examines what might happen to their rights in the event of Brexit.
One of the first things you learn when you study EU law is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) protects EU citizens who move to other EU countries. In one important ECJ case, it was said that any EU citizen can claim “civis europeus sum” – I am a European citizen. That principle of EU law means that every Brit living or owning property elsewhere in the EU has a vast range of legal rights: to work, to run a business, to buy property, to live where they like, to use public services such as health, to pay no more taxes than locals, to vote in local elections and so on.
Depending on the final outcome of any post-Brexit deal, all of those rights could vanish if the UK leaves the EU.
What do Brexiters say?
First, they point out that Brits lived on the continent before the EU. This is true. But they had no automatic right to work, run a business and so on without the say-so of the relevant government.
Second, they argue that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties will help. But Article 70 of that convention only protects rights and obligations “created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination”.
It is very unclear what those words mean in the case of Brexit. They would probably stop the host country from confiscating a house bought previously – although the European Convention on Human Rights would probably prevent that anyway. But it is hard to see that they would give Brits any continuing right to be treated as an EU citizen in the years after Brexit, when it came to matters such as the rights to work, not to pay extra taxes, to use public health care, to buy further property or even to carry on living in the host country. Further, it would be for the courts and lawmakers to interpret and apply this rule. So the claim that the Vienna Convention offers any solid protection to expat Brits is incorrect.
And even Brexiters do not claim that anything in the Vienna Convention could help Brits who merely plan to live or work elsewhere in the EU but have not yet done so.
Third, one can also argue that the UK would do a deal with EU countries to protect the position of British expats.
But since Brexiters want to be able to stop or control migration from other EU countries to the UK, and since any deal would have to be even-handed, we can’t expect that any such agreement would give Brits living elsewhere in the EU anything like the same rights they enjoy now.
My advice to British expats in the EU is clear: a vote to stay in is the only way to ensure existing rights are fully protected. And any British expat who left the UK less than 15 years ago has the right to vote.
Edited by Victor Sebestyen