Settling citizens’ rights will be one of the most complex tasks in the British divorce from the European Union. Brexit puts at stake the rights to reside, work, access education and social welfare not only of EU nationals living in the UK and British resident in other EU countries. Some of these entitlements extend to EU nationals’ family members, whether they are from the EU or not. British citizens may also see changes to their EU rights in the future, depending on the new relation the country will establish with the European Union.
In truth, however, these rights have not always been properly enforced. A European parliament report published before the Brexit referendum noted for example that the UK discriminates EU citizens using a ‘minimum earning threshold’ to define a worker. In this way people might be excluded from EU rights despite having a job. But all countries have their faults. In France, Italy and Belgium family members of EU nationals face bureaucratic hurdles, especially if they are from outside the EU. In Germany, there is controversy around access to social benefits for jobseekers and economically inactive persons from other EU states. And Poland does not recognize partners as members of the family.
So how to know which EU rights apply to you and what to do if they are not respected? Here are 12 places to get started.
1) Your Europe portal. A website by the European Commission, it offers in all EU languages an overview of the rights that come with EU citizenship: from travel, to work and retirement, residence, access to education and health, as well as consumer protection.
2) Your Europe Advice Service. Managed by non-profit European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) on behalf of the European Commission, this service is designed to responds to questions about EU rights applicable to individuals or businesses. Advice is provided by 63 legal experts spread across EU countries and familiar with both EU and national laws. They can clarify what EU laws can do in a particular situation, explain how to exercise EU rights and signpost people to other services if further assistance is needed. They do not offer litigation support. Response is guaranteed within one week, free of charge, in any of the 24 EU official languages. Enquiries can be submitted online or by phone.
3) Lawyers. Depending on the circumstances, it might be necessary to seek professional legal help to better understand rights and options, including how to go about litigation and appeals. Whether paying fees or on a pro-bono basis, immigration advice and services can only be provided by registered professionals: it is a crime to operate in this field without appropriate registration. Lists of qualified lawyers are usually available through national organisations (e.g. the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association in the UK). Embassies can also provide lists of lawyers working in the national language.
4) EU rights clinic. A joint initiative of the University of Kent in Brussels, the Kent Law Clinic and ECAS, this service helps EU citizens who cannot afford a lawyer to resolve problems encountered when moving around the EU. The assistance is provided by students enrolled on the EU Migration Law course at the University of Kent in Brussels, in partnership with qualified lawyers and citizens’ rights advisers. At the time of writing, due to the high volume of enquiries, the EU rights clinic was only taking enquiries related to Belgium.
5) Charitable organisations specialised in EU rights. In the UK, the AIRE (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) Centre promotes awareness of European laws and assists marginalised and vulnerable people. AIRE provides legal advice to individuals or to other lawyers and advisers in the voluntary sector. It also organises training.
6) SOLVIT. Another service by the European Commission to assist EU citizens or businesses when a public authority in another country of the European Economic Area (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) does not do what is required under EU laws. Solvit clarifies EU rights with the responsible authority and works with them to solve the problem. It only intervenes with public administrations, it cannot help if problems are between companies, when compensation is sought or the case is taken to court.
7) The Ombudsman. In case of misadministration by organisations or public authorities, it is fair to complain and seek a solution. If this does not lead to a satisfactory outcome, the issue can be escalated to the ombudsman. The ombudsman can make recommendations to the relevant office to resolve the problem, but this is not forced to follow its advice. Lists of ombudsmen in the UK and of national Ombudsmen in Europe are available online. If the case is related to European institutions, a complaint can be sent to the European Ombudsman.
8) Your Embassy. When living in another EU country, your Embassy might be able to advise and sometimes provide support about EU rights. Several diplomatic missions of EU countries now offer advice or dedicated services about Brexit to their citizens in the UK. The Portuguese consulate helps citizens with permanent residence application forms. The Italian Embassy opened an online information section and an email address to ask questions. The German Embassy also has a dedicated Brexit email address for its citizens. British Embassies across Europe support UK citizens in similar ways.
9) Your Member of Parliament (MP). A more political option, contacting the member of parliament representing your constituency might be an opportunity to present a case of unfulfilled duties and put pressure on the government or public authority involved in the matter. MPs can submit questions to the government, initiate debates and vote resolutions about the case. In some countries there are also Members of Parliament elected to represent citizens living abroad.
10) Your Member of the European Parliament (MEP). In a similar way, it is also possible to contact MEPs from you country or constituency. A cross-party task force to examine how citizens rights are being treated in the context of Brexit has recently been created by MEPs from different countries coordinated by the Dutch Sophie in ‘t Veld.
11) Petitions. Different rules apply when organising petitions at national level. But any citizen, company, organisation or association based in the European Union has the right to petition the European Parliament. A petition can be individual or presented jointly with others. It can be a complaint, a request or observation about the application of EU laws. The petitions committee examines the case and can propose parliament resolutions asking the European Commission to act on the matter.
12) Complaints to the European Commission. When national authorities infringe EU laws, the first step consists in taking the matter to the competent national body by administrative or legal action. The next option is to submit a complaint to the European Commission. The Commission can only act if an EU law has been breached by authorities in a EU country, not if the issue involves private individuals or organisations. Complaints can be lodged online in all EU languages. The Commission will assess the case, propose to transfer it to the most appropriate mechanism to solve the problem or sometimes decide to open an infringement procedure against the country involved.
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
Photo: Meeting of the Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs in Amsterdam, 2016, via Wikimedia Commons.