British citizens living in the EU say they will suffer “a huge loss” if negotiators from the UK and Brussels do not settle their differences over the rights of citizens to live and work across the continent after Brexit.
The EU had offered to allow the 1.2 million Britons living in Europe before Brexit to continue to have the right to freedom of movement, so they could live, work, study and enjoy visa-free travel in any EU country.
They also wanted to cover the 45,000 British citizens who either work in Europe on short-term contracts or live in Britain and commute to work in an EU country.
However, this now looks in jeopardy after EU and British negotiators clashed on the issue this week, during the second round of Brexit talks. EU officials have said British people living in the European Union could lose the right to live in another EU member state after Brexit unless the UK makes a reciprocal offer for the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain that would allow them to move to another EU country and return to the UK.
Jane Golding, chair of British in Europe, a coalition of 11 grassroots organisations across the continent campaigning for their rights post-Brexit, said it would be “a huge loss” if British citizens could not have the right to live, work and study in more than one EU country after Brexit.
“It would be extremely important for some people who work in several countries or people who live in one country and commute to another,” said Golding, a British lawyer living in Berlin.
The British government has proposed “settled status” for EU nationals, but EU nationals who are granted this status would lose it if they left the UK for more than two years.
The EU is seeking an open-ended guarantee that would allow European citizens to resettle in Britain after an indefinite period living in another country.
Golding said if the British position on freedom of movement made it to the final deal, she would be unable to continue with her frequent trips to Brussels where she often works.
Other Britons living near transnational borders would also be badly affected.
“Some countries are extremely small and it would impact on a lot of British in those countries. Take Luxembourg. If you cannot move easily out of the country to go across the border to work in Belgium, or Germany or France, then it would be extremely difficult for you to stay there,” she said.
Golding said she was puzzled about the EU’s move to prevent British people living in the European Union from living in another EU member state after Brexit because the organisation’s commitment to freedom of movement was specifically added to the final negotiating document after a meeting with British citizens in Europe on 10 May.
“They asked us for our response to the draft document and we went to see them on 10 May and raised this point and my understanding is this was why the point of freedom of movement was inserted,” she said.
The “definition of the rights to be protected” in the draft negotiating document makes no mention of freedom of movement, but the corresponding paragraph in the final negotiating paper, paragraph 21 (b) (i) specifically refers to “the residence rights and rights of free movement”.
Britons in Europe have previously said they fear they will be “sacrificial lambs” in the Brexit negotiations, ending up with fewer rights than EU citizens in the UK if the British position is adopted.
Ingrid Taylor, a Briton who lives in Munich, said she was dismayed by the development.
“We were expecting differences, but why are they saying this? Our whole experience so far on the Brussels side has been one of understanding. Why would you stoop [to] the British offer?
“The UK have been demanding reciprocal rights from the EU, but if the EU agree to the British proposal, British nationals will come out far worse,” said Taylor.
In the past two months Britons have warned they will be “landlocked” in Europe unless they have freedom of movement.
Alan Faulkner, a Briton who has lived in Munich since 1977, has said that without freedom of movement Britons would be “essentially locked into living in Germany for the rest of our lives” because their right to live in other EU states would be lost.
Ken Gray, a Scot who runs an engineering company in Germany, has said he is concerned that his British staff will not be able to move around easily to attend conferences or visit clients.
Taylor said: “This is a serious backward step, a hiccup. I’m a bit lost for words. It would be a serious negative.”
Dave Spokes, who runs a grassroots campaign from France, said the implications of limiting free movement would be “profound” for both “anyone working or running a business which requires them to work in more than one country” and for Britons living in one country but married to a national from another EU country.
“Would their ‘foreign’ spouse be free to join them in the UK, or would their children or relatives be allowed to visit them from the UK or even live in another country?”
“This has the potential to make family life very difficult or even destroy family units. If the government continues in this direction, family life for many could become very difficult,” he said.