In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the UK begun to experience what many see as the beginning of a “European exodus”. In 2017 the number of EU nationals leaving the UK reached 130,000, the highest recorded since 2008, according to the Organisation for National Statistics.
In light of this situation, what is being done by the EU27 states to help and repatriate their citizens? For the time being the answer to the question is not very positive, both for political and practical reasons. The EU27 chose to delegate the Brexit negotiations to Michel Barnier, chief negotiator at the European Commission, and decided to not make any comments or take any actions that could compromise talks led by Brussels.
However increasing attention is being given to the subject of returning citizens. Some countries, such as Poland, have been outspoken on their desire to attract talent back from abroad. Latvia has established ‘regional coordinators’ tasked to ease life of Latvians who consider returning. France has a website to help its citizens abroad planning a comeback. The French government also recently launched a questionnaire to understand whether taxation, social protection and access to public services respond adequately to their needs or to a possible return to the country.
The questionnaire, commissioned by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, follows a meeting held in February at the National Assembly (the lower house of the French parliament) on the impact of Brexit on the rights of French and EU citizens (video). Anne-Laure Donskoy, co-chair of the3million, a group campaigning for the rights of EU nationals in the UK, discussed the practical, legal and cultural struggles of moving back to France.
A French national herself, Donskoy mentioned some recurrent themes emerging from online chats and the Facebook forum of the3million. Those wanting to return to France have to face the difficulties of finding accommodation and employment with next-to-no help from the government, as well as deal with restrictive laws, she said. The main problem is about housing, as people are asked to provide documents they do not have (e.g. French tax certificates and a French bank account). This creates a vicious circle where people cannot find a home without employment and cannot find employment without a home, she warned.
The issues surrounding certain benefits in the UK not being transferable to France, such as disability allowances, were also raised at the meeting. And some benefits related to freedom of movement are conditional on the country of residence rather than the nationality of the person claiming them. This means that after Brexit, European citizens living in the UK will no longer have access to many opportunities when they are funded by the EU because they will live in what will have become a third country.
Donskoy said there are also questions about the future recognition of professional and academic qualifications taken in the UK. She added that support will be needed for young students who will be moving to France with their families, entering an entirely different education system and studying in what could, for many, be a foreign or second language.
Family reunification could even be an issue for some people whose marriages or civil partnerships may not be recognized by the French state.
Donskoy suggested some practical solutions to help French returnees, from advice and support provided by French consulates and employment offices, to administrative simplification, to the harmonisation of diplomas and certificates (including pet passports) or making phone numbers of French administrations, banks and post offices accessible from abroad. She also said staff working on these issues in the public administration should be trained to understand in depth what they are dealing with, especially in complex cases that deviate from standard procedures.
Donskoy argued that the French government should “accept that Brexit is an exceptional situation and that calls for exceptional measures”. The survey just launched may be a step in that direction, but it’s just the beginning of a new Brexit conversation that will have to occur in other countries too.
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