British in Europe closing down after 5 years: interview with co-chair Jane Golding

British in Europe, the coalition of groups representing UK citizens living in EU countries, have announced the winding down of their activities at the end of February.

“After five years of relentless lobbying and advocacy,” the group said they have been unable to secure the necessary funds to continue, “despite the generosity of many individual donors living in the EU”.

British in Europe formed as a coalition in January 2017, a few months after the referendum on the UK exit from the EU. During the referendum campaign, a group of British citizens in Berlin became active urging people to vote and informing them about the consequences of leaving the EU. Many had lost their electoral rights because they had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years.

After the referendum, the group joined up with fellow Britons in Munich and Hamburg to represent UK citizens at the national level. Meanwhile, other groups were being set up spontaneously in other EU countries. Jane Golding, a British lawyer in Berlin, said they recognised the need to build a coalition and speak with one voice. The different groups started then to have conference calls to get organised and really came together when a UK parliamentary committee invited British citizens to give evidence concerning the Brexit impacts on their lives.

Jane Golding became chair of British in Europe, a role that she has shared with Luxembourg-based Fiona Godfrey since 2018. Jane studied in France, qualified as a lawyer in Britain, lived in Belgium where she met her German husband, worked in Italy where their son was born, returned to Brussels where she had their second child, before moving to Germany with the entire family.

In 2021 Jane Golding and Fiona Godfrey, as well as long-term campaigner Harry Schindler, received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to UK nationals in Europe. Other representatives of UK citizens’ groups also received the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award.

In this interview with Europe Street, Jane Golding reflects on the work done in these five years, the negotiation of the UK withdrawal from the EU and the value of EU citizenship.

Why is the British in Europe coalition winding down its activities?

We are winding down because we couldn’t secure core funding. We did manage to raise some funds through donations and we were very grateful to our supporters and members for that. But in order to keep going and fund the work that people are doing in the way that we have been doing it, in such an intensive fashion and almost full time, we would really need a minimum of about 200,000 euros a year.

After almost six years, it is just not possible for all of us to continue working on a fundamentally volunteer basis with some funding for some activities. It is not sustainable as a model, particularly as a number of us have got day jobs.

It is difficult to understand why there wasn’t more support.

It is very sad because we are absolutely aware that our work is not done. There is still a lot to do. We were at the meeting of the [EU-UK] Specialised Committee on citizens’ rights [a body that monitors the implementation of the withdrawal agreement] at the end of January. Fiona was speaking before the EU delegation to the EU-UK parliamentary partnership assembly this month. We raised a number of issues concerning the implementation of the withdrawal agreement that we know over the next five years will continue to come up, as well as other issues, particularly until the people who moved to the EU a year or two before the end of Brexit transition build up the five years for permanent residence.

It is also sad because we have been able to do what we have because there has been a coalition monitoring the situation across the EU, identifying systemic problems and feeding those issues to both the UK and the EU. We could have done much more.

Looking back at when you started, did you expect what happened in the past 5 years?

Originally, when it comes to citizens’ rights, the bar seemed to be quite high. We were told by [EU chief Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier and [former UK Prime Minister] Theresa May that we would be able to live our lives as before.

The EU put out a paper, the negotiating guidelines, which, on the face of it, seemed fair. It looked as if it would safeguard the majority of our rights, but wasn’t clear whether the rights of UK citizens would extend beyond the country where they were living.

We met Barnier and his team in March 2017 and then, in June, the UK published its paper on the rights of EU citizens in the UK with some references to the rights of UK citizens in the EU. Rather than simply agreeing with the EU’s, this was effectively a counter-proposal. This seems like a million years ago now.

The counter-proposal introduced the settled status system [for EU citizens in the UK] which is very much a creature of UK immigration law. At that point, we could see that there was likely going to be, through the negotiations, a race to the bottom. We could see then that we weren’t going to be able to continue to live our lives as before.

Is free movement the main area in which Britons in the EU have lost out?

Yes, the ability for us to move across the EU and the rights attached to it, for example the EU-wide recognition of qualifications, and everything to do with a cross-border working environment.

From when that paper came out, and the engagement that followed with both sides, it became clear to us that the process wasn’t going to be as straightforward as we might have hoped, that there was going to be quite tough negotiations on citizens’ rights, and that we might lose more rights along the way than we had hoped.

After the counter-proposal from the UK, there was a sense that what would not be achieved with the withdrawal agreement would be negotiated as part of the future trade agreement. Is that right?

Yes, there was expected to be a first round of negotiations for the withdrawal agreement and a second round which would be the trade agreement itself. And there were a number of issues presented in tables, each item green or red according to the state of progress, published after each round of talks. At the end of the negotiations, there were items ‘out of scope’ [of the withdrawal agreement] and that was where our free movement was placed.

So to recap, Brexit started with the promise that everything was going to stay the same for British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. Then, quite early, the UK said that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would not be automatically guaranteed. Then there was the proposal from the EU and the UK counter-proposal, and finally the idea, at least from the EU side, that what couldn’t be achieved with the withdrawal agreement would be addressed in the trade agreement. Was it a surprise that the UK just refused to have a mobility chapter in the trade agreement?

Yes, it was a surprise. But then, on the other hand, it wasn’t as much of a surprise because the key point that the UK government was making about the benefits of Brexit was ‘ending free movement once and for all’. Initially, we didn’t expect that, but once it became clear that that was what the government was looking for, I don’t think it was such a surprise that the TCA [trade and cooperation agreement] was so limited on mobility.

Do you think it would have been possible to have a Brexit like the Brexiters wanted and maintain the rights of British citizens in the EU?

I think it is difficult because it was a point of principle for the Brexiters and I don’t think that they thought there should be any exceptions to that principle, including for UK citizens living in the EU. The principle for them was free movement ends. Adding nuance and pushing for a different approach for British people who made use of their free movement rights would have somewhat undermined the principle for them.

However, back in 2017, we did manage to persuade the UK government to put free movement on the table and to push for our free movement, but in the end we were not successful in obtaining it. You also have to bear in mind that on the EU side the integrity of the single market was key and the fact that we were becoming third country nationals.

Given how the events have evolved, do you think the withdrawal agreement has been fair?

Well, from where we started, we should have been able to continue our daily lives as before. We had a legitimate expectation that we had rights for life and we should have been able to continue exercising them. From that position, the withdrawal agreement didn’t feel fair because all the withdrawal agreement does is to protect the ‘existing life choices’, which is very different from protecting ‘rights’. The reality is that you make life choices because you have rights, not the other way round.

We were happy that the withdrawal agreement confirmed and safeguarded the majority of the rights of UK citizens where they live, their ‘existing life choices’. But at the same time, this is a very old-fashioned way of looking at free movement, because it is predicated on the idea that you move from one country to another and you just stay there, which is not really what free movement is about.

The idea behind free movement is the ability to move in the single market, from one country to another, including where labour is needed. It is supposed to be very flexibile, just as, for example, people moving between states in the US. Even in our generation, Generation X, there are numerous examples of people who have moved multiple times, often for relatively long periods. But then, if you look at the millennial generation, you have people moving for six months here and a year there, and their rights are not really protected because they are used to a very mobile lifestyle so they do not build up residence rights. So yes, we are disadvantaged by the withdrawal agreement, and young people especially.

We have also seen that the withdrawal agreement does not take into account the special circumstances of second-generation free movement users, the children of people who exercised their free movement rights to move to another country. The withdrawal agreement does not cover all of the issues that might arise for them.

Take, for example, young withdrawal agreement beneficiaries living in a country where it is not that easy to get citizenship, although they have been living there since they were two or three years old. Suppose they want to go and study in another EU country. They may then find it more difficult to apply for citizenship in the country where they grew up and end up paying international fees in the country they move to. In fact, they may be in a worse situation than, for example, a third country national who moves to the EU, builds up five years residence, gets a long term residence permit and has mobility rights and the right to home fees as a student.

We have had the example of a British student who grew up in Poland. She wanted to study in the Netherlands and in principle would have had to pay international fees as a withdrawal agreement beneficiary. Her Ukrainian boyfriend, who has been in Poland for more than five years and has acquired long-term residence as a third country national, has mobility rights and the right to home fees. So it is very complicated and also, it is not of their own doing, as this group didn’t even make the decision to move: they were brought up from a young age in another country because their parents decided to move.

Have some of the rights that have not been covered in the withdrawal agreement been dealt with in the trade agreement?

Not really, mobility rights in the TCA are inadequate. For example, for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement provides a similar system to the EU-Canada agreement, where a joint committee meets and discusses how to deal with qualifications sector by sector. It is a long, long process. As far as I’m aware, the EU and Canada have only got round to discussing one area so far since 2017.

Everything considered, what do you think is the biggest success of British in Europe?

For us probably the biggest success has been to give a voice to a group of citizens, the vast majority of whom did not have a vote, and to make sure we were in the room from the 28 March 2017 [the day before the UK sent the letter triggering Article 50 of the EU Treaty to withdraw from the EU], when we met Michel Barnier for the first time.

We put down a marker, and then through our lobbying and advocacy over these past five years, we were recognised as the official representatives of UK citizens in the EU in the specialised committee on citizens’ rights under the withdrawal agreement. It is quite unusual that civil society organisations are invited to address committees in the context of trade negotiations between the EU and third countries.

The other thing that we are proud of is that we didn’t just accept the wholesale removal of our rights sitting down. We fought to make our voices heard to convey, both at UK and EU level, the message that what was being done to us and EU citizens in the UK as Brexit collateral damage was not okay and I would like to think that we have made at least some people feel uncomfortable about this, particularly since we were one quarter or more of all EU citizens exercising free movement in the EU. What does that mean for the European project?

The fact that citizens’ rights was a priority in the negotiations and the intensive and frankly unprecedented engagement that we had as a civil society group, plus the relations of trust that we have built up with MPs and MEPs and with officials, not just in the UK but at national level EU-wide, I think are a testament to the fact that we could not be ignored.

Then as co-chairs you have been awarded the OBE title.

We were honoured as co-chairs and we accepted it as we saw it very much as honouring and recognising the work of the organisation rather than us as individuals.

What didn’t work as planned, besides the loss of free movement rights?

Still on the positives, we lobbied hard for the declaratory systems [14 EU countries required British citizens to re-register but not to apply for residence]. We did get a concession on permanent residence, so under the withdrawal agreement we would only lose our rights if we stay outside the country where we live for more than five years, instead of two under the free movement directive. So at least we obtained a concession to compensate for the loss of free movement.

In the UK we secured from the Home Office the grace period for returning to the UK with non-UK family members under free movement rules under EU case law [until 29 March 2022] and from the Department of Education on student fees and student loans.

So young British citizens who move from the EU to study in the UK will have to pay international fees?

After seven years from the 1st of January 2021.

Even if they are British?

Yes, if they are British citizens living in an EU or EEA country [Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein] and they want to go and study in the UK, they will be granted home fees for the first seven years from 1 January 2021. After that, they will count as international students and will have to pay international fees. My daughter is likely to just scrape in as she is at high school now, but people with kids who are 10 or 11 at the moment might not make it.

But I can tell you one of the things that is very frustrating is that I don’t think we have managed to remove completely the stereotypes of the British tabloids about UK citizens in the EU. Those stereotypes, supported by some TV programmes, are often stuck back in the 1970s with the idea that the vast majority of British citizens who live abroad are pensioners sitting in the sun sipping prosecco or gin and tonic, or tax exiles. Well, it’s been hailing and snowing here in Berlin while we are talking so I didn’t move for a place in the sun!

I think we have managed to make some inroads in changing some of the perceptions and get the message across to officials, MPs and MEPs, that nearly 80% of us are people in working age or younger, and that one of the most affected groups, as I mentioned earlier, is the younger generation.

If you met the people in our group here in Berlin, they don’t bear any resemblance to the stereotype whatsoever. We had one meeting where we talked about why we moved to Berlin and, for those who were about my age, it was the same reason: the recession in the early 1990s when we were looking for opportunities abroad because there were not many in the UK.

What do you think is needed to change this sort of stereotypying that affects you, but also many other social groups, including EU citizens in the UK?

I think it is a matter of time and relentlessly pushing the message over and over again and, by the way, there is nothing wrong with somebody wanting to retire to a nice place and enjoy the sun.

But it is not a realistic image of the vast majority of British citizens who live in Europe, and with that you could end up with far too much focus in the negotiations on issues like pensions and social security rights when, in actual fact, many of us were concerned about employment rights, the recognition of our qualifications, where our children were going to study and how much is was going to cost.

What are the issues to look out for in the future regarding the EU-UK agreements and EU and UK legislation that will impact British citizens who live in the EU?

There are issues related to the withdrawal agreement that certainly will continue for the foreseeable future. The most recent Joint Implementation report shows there are problems with the statistics on how many British citizens in EU countries have being reached, especially in declaratory countries, as the numbers of those who have registered are pretty low.

There are delays in issuing residence cards and the knock on effect in terms of access to services, because even in the countries where it is not compulsory to hold residence cards, you often need them in daily life. We had this kind of issue at the beginning in Germany, which are now sorted. Similarly, in Greece and Italy there are problems still, and in Portugal we are still seeing a lot of problems because no cards have been issued yet.

Children are another issue because there is lack of clarity about whether they have to apply for residence in some countries. I think there is that in the UK as well, but not so much because everything is centralised.

In the UK, the settled status scheme is centralised within the Home Office. But in many EU countries, including big countries such as Germany and Spain, the implementation of the withdrawal agreement is decentralised at the local and regional level. Just thinking about North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the biggest states in Germany, there are around 84 different foreigners offices.

The other issue that is coming up relates to frontier workers and cross-border working, due to the lack of mobility rights.

The situation is unclear also about the combination of status, for instance being protected under the withdrawal agreement and registered as a third country national long-term resident, or having the EU blue card [an EU work permit for highly qualified workers] or combine dual citizenship with withdrawal agreement beneficiary status. The European Commission has confirmed that the combination of statuses is possible but it is not clear yet how this will work in practice in some countries.

At the UK level, there is the deadline of the 29th of March for citizens returning from the EU with non-UK family members. We have had clarifications about reasonable grounds for late applications from the Home Office, but once the rules change issues will probably emerge. Same thing with student fees.

These issues will continue into the future and there will be more coming up. And I think that it is really important to remember that it is not just about residence rights, but it’s the whole gamut of rights that should be taken into account, including voting rights, citizenship and the loss of citizenship without notice for dual nationals [as currently discussed in the UK nationality and borders bill].

And at the EU level there will be the revision of the directive on the long-term residence of third country nationals.

Yes, exactly. So that is something else to look out for and it may be relevant for those who want to combine statuses and have some mobility rights.

Who will represent now British citizens living in the EU?

That’s the question, isn’t it? Because we have no Independent Monitoring Authority, as EU citizens do in the UK… [the IMA was established in the UK to ensure public authorities comply with the withdrawal agreement with regard to citizens’ rights]

But there is the European Commission, which is in charge of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement for Britons in the EU…

The officials working in the European Commission are absolutely excellent and we have had a very good relationship with them. But it’s a small team, they don’t have a lot of resources, they are dealing with 27 countries and they will no longer have as interlocutors an EU-wide group to feed in issues about citizens’ rights.

Obviously there will be ways of raising issues also via the British embassies, the national authorities in each member state, Your Europe Advice [an EU advising service] and MEPs.

And then, of course, there are the UK parliamentary committees, like the European Affairs Committee, that heard us last year. There are still some channels, but there will be no dedicated EU-wide group that brings all of this together.

We are no longer there as British in Europe to defend the rights of our members, but the good news is that there will still be quite a lot of active national groups, for example the British in Germany group of which I am chair, and EuroCitizens in Spain. Most of the British in Europe national groups have said that they want to continue. The question is, how long for and then what, and how those groups might network going forward.

Have you ever been approached or have you ever discussed an extension of your work to cover more generally the right of British citizens in the EU, not just those under the withdrawal agreement? Like musicians, for example…

We have talked to some of these groups, but the problem was always the lack of resources. We have had quite a lot of communication, for example, with the groups defending the rights of second home owners in the EU and a lot of people contacted us about what they have to do to move to Germany. We tried to be helpful, but we don’t have the resources to cover all of these issues. That’s the problem. So we had a specific focus and I think that’s what allowed us to be successful with the limited resources that we had.

It seems incredible, though, that there isn’t a group for the rights of British citizens in the EU.

Incredible in a way, because before the referendum I don’t think you would have easily talked about a British diaspora in Europe, and with lots of fragmented groups I don’t think there was any real cohesion. That is why we thought we needed to establish a coalition in Europe so that we could all speak with one voice and have a stronger voice.  

I think what we have done has also made a significant contribution to the debate on EU citizenship and third country nationals’ rights in the EU generally. What really would be needed is some sort of organisation to represent the rights of all ‘mobile citizens’ in the EU because that’s the only way to have the high-level overview and compare and contrast national situations across the EU. That’s the advantage that we had.

And I think that is something that actually mobile EU citizens need as well, because a lot of the problems that we are seeing with the implementation of the withdrawal agreement mirror the issues that arise with the implementation of the EU free movement directive.

Do you think people in the UK have understood what it means to lose EU citizenship?

No, I don’t think they really have, and I don’t think they really understood what free movement is. A lot of people simply thought it meant they had the right to travel to another country. They didn’t understand this whole set of interlinked rights that you have as an EU citizen which allows you to live, work, love and build a life in another country or multiple countries. And I don’t think they have entirely understood how it will restrict the choices of young British people compared to other young Europeans.

If I look back to my experience, I have had the freedom to study, live, work and love in five different countries, despite growing up in a family who was not particularly well off. It is going to be a lot harder for young British people to do so in the future. One thing that you hear so often is people who are saying, well, we did it before we joined the EU so we will be able to do it again. I know from my mum, who did actually try in her twenties to go and work in other countries in Europe, how much bureaucracy and paperwork she had to deal with just for three to six months in two different countries. I didn’t have to do all of that.

Can we say also it’s different times?

It is completely different times. And also in those days a British person who wanted to work in another European country probably might have been more valuable just by virtue of being able to speak English. These days, everybody can speak English. I mean, not everybody, but there are loads of really, really talented graduates from all over Europe who speak English. If a British person does not have the same rights and it is not so easy to employ them, then they won’t get employed. It’s as simple as that. So I just ask myself, given all of this and knowing what I know about what my mum went through, and how much easier it was for me, why would we go backwards?

Coincidentally, as we speak is the anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty which established EU citizenship, probably the most underrated achievement of the EU. EU citizenship was not mentioned in the booklet that former Prime Minister David Cameron distributed to UK households before the referendum. Is there any explanation for that?

It goes back to what I just said, which is people in the UK have not entirely come to terms to what the loss of EU citizenship means, and I think it is because they didn’t actually understand what it was and its benefits. Many people just thought it was about going on holidays without a visa.

There are now some legal cases at the Court of Justice of the EU trying to determine whether UK citizens, or at least some groups of UK citizens, should maintain EU citizenship. Do you think British citizens should maintain EU citizenship?

It is a very, very difficult question. There are those who have fully exercised their free movement rights and made a life in another country. There are others who have used their free movement rights for their work but actually lived in the UK. There are those who maybe have a second home in another country, and others who perhaps were never interested in exercising their EU citizenship rights.

It is an important question because EU citizenship rights were supposed to be an add-on to national citizenship rights and this is the first time that we have a situation where those additional rights are being removed. So what does that mean for EU citizenship? Should EU citizenship be a fundamental status rather than just be connected to nationality? And if the member state of which you hold the nationality decides to leave the EU, as an individual, you have no say and lose your EU citizenship?

But, at the same time, the UK has left the EU and politically could the population of the UK theoretically maintain their EU citizenship? That’s a really big question and we will see how it goes.

The heart of the question is, is EU citizenship a fundamental status or not? In what circumstances can it be removed? What are the conditions? And what are the aspirations for EU citizenship going forward? And what effect will what happened to citizens on both sides of the Channel as a result of Brexit have on the status of EU citizenship?

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo by Debbie Williams, courtesy British in Europe: Holding a British in Europe banner, Jane Golding on the right and Fiona Godfrey the left.

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