Brits lost citizens’ rights after Brexit, EU court says

British nationals who enjoyed the benefits of EU citizenship, including the right to vote and stand in elections, lost those rights following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, a senior official at the European Court of Justice has said. [Aerial Mike/Shutterstock]

British nationals who enjoyed the benefits of EU citizenship, including the right to vote and stand in elections, lost those rights following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, a senior official at the European Court of Justice said.

Anthony Collins, an Irish advocate general at the court, said in an opinion published on Thursday (24 February) that when the UK formally left the European Union, British nationals ceased to be Union citizens.

“Whilst the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement afforded them certain rights during the transition period, the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in municipal elections in their Member State of residence were not amongst them,” the advocate general said, adding that “the loss of those rights is one of the consequences of the sovereign decision of the UK to withdraw from the European Union.”

“Union citizenship is additional to, and does not replace, nationality conferred by the Member States,” said Collins.

The opinion, which is likely to be formally confirmed in a legal ruling by the Luxembourg-based court on the case in June, will come as a major blow to citizens’ rights campaigners. The case was brought on behalf of a retired civil servant from the UK Foreign Office, Alice Bouilliez, who has lived in south-west France for 37 years.

Bouilliez had argued that the loss of her voting rights in local and European elections, which is provided by EU citizenship, was unlawful and that EU citizenship was a fundamental status that should not be withdrawn without consent.

The voting rights of EU nationals in the UK and the estimated 1.3 million UK counterparts across Europe were left unclear after the UK formally exited the bloc in January 2020.

The Court’s opinion, if confirmed, will mean that UK nationals will only have voting rights in EU countries if they have formal citizenship of the country in question, or if the UK has a bilateral agreement with the country on the voting rights of EU nationals in the UK and their UK counterparts in the EU.

Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland have struck reciprocal voting agreements in the UK.

The situation is also complicated for Europeans living in the UK. The franchise for general elections and referendums in the UK is limited to citizens of the UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government confirmed that EU citizens who were living in the UK before 31 December 2020 will retain their local voting and candidacy rights, provided they have confirmed their immigration status in the UK. Existing UK law also gives EU nationals the right to vote in the London mayoral and assembly elections.

The Scottish government has given citizens from abroad the right to vote and stand in Scottish elections.

Citizens’ rights on both sides of the Channel have been contested throughout the Brexit process. Last week, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič expressed “regret” at the UK’s handling of the residency rights of EU nationals.

Meanwhile, campaign groups have also urged the European Commission to take steps to make sure that the democratic rights of Britons resident in the EU are protected.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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