Legal limbo for 2m Brits living in EU after Brexit, report warns

Both sides of the Brexit negotiating table have been accused of underestimating the Herculean task at hand. [MattTempest/ Flickr]

The 2 million UK citizens currently living abroad, in the EU, would face years of legal limbo over their futures, a report by senior British politicians warned today (4 May.)

So far, the plight of British expats working, or retired, abroad has received less attention than the issue of the economy and immigration, ahead of Britain’s in/out referendum on 23 June.

But today’s findings from the House of Lords EU committee warns there will be no simple answer to the questions of right to reside, or healthcare arrangements, for the 2m or so Brits in continental Europe.

In the understated language of Britain’s upper house, it concludes that sorting out the rights of those Britons left stranded abroad after an ‘out’ vote would be “complex and daunting”.

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There is no doubt that UK manufacturing and wider business is best served by being in the EU and by continuing to be influential in defining the future direction of the framework conditions for manufacturing companies in the bloc, writes Adrian Harris.

One of the report’s expert witnesses, Oxford law professor Derrick Wyatt, told the committee, “It is estimated that 2 million Brits live in other EU countries … Take elderly people who have lived for 10 years in Spain. After five years, they acquired a right of permanent residence as citizens of the Union and that includes access to the Spanish healthcare system. If we leave, what do we do about vested rights?”

The report concludes that this is one of the “most complex aspects of the negotiations following a Brexit’ vote – deciding on the so-called ‘acquired rights’ of Britons living abroad.

The report’s authors write: “If the new relationship involved restrictions on the free movement of people, detailed arrangements would be necessary governing the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK and of UK citizens resident in the EU acquired prior to the UK’s withdrawal.

“The arrangements would need to cover residence rights, rights to take up employment or self-employment, and rights to health care and social security. There would also have to be an agreement on the dates from which acquired rights would be recognised, and transitional arrangements for those not qualifying for acquired rights.”

In another finding, the report states that contrary to assumptions that a fresh UK-EU trade deal could be drawn up within a couple of years of leaving the bloc, most current EU-non EU trade deals took an average of at least four to nine years to conclude.

The Lords report also finds that the only legal exit from the EU would be under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

However, that process would still require unanimity from the remaining 27 members on the terms of departure – which the ‘Remain’ camp have argued would see them negotiate tough terms in order to discourage other member states from being tempted to walk out of the bloc.

And  – intriguingly – it finds that, legally, the UK could change its mind during the negotiations, even after a referendum ‘out’ vote.

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However, the 19-strong committee warn that “the political consequences of such a change of mind would, though, be substantial”.

The only likely scenario in which that could occur is a change of government in London during the negotiations to a more pro-EU government – although even then, the new government would need to explain away a U-turn on a democratic plebiscite.

The committee do not express an opinion on Brexit itself – instead, looking at the legal implications of such a move.

It’s chairman, Lord Boswell, states: “The Committee wanted to examine the processes, legal, practical and political, of leaving the EU, should the UK vote to end its membership on 23 June.

“We don’t take a view on whether the UK should leave the EU or not. But it is clear that if that’s what people decide, withdrawal would mean difficult and lengthy negotiations. It’s not possible to predict exactly how long it would take, but comparable international trade deals have taken on average between four and nine years.

“The rights of some two million UK citizens living abroad would need to be determined, as would the rights of a similar number of EU citizens living in the UK. This is complex stuff – you are talking about rights to residence, to healthcare and to schooling, about maintenance payments and access to children, about research projects and contracts that cross borders. As we say in the report, sorting all this out would be a daunting task.

“Extricating ourselves from the EU would also involve untangling a Gordian knot of EU laws. You can’t just cut through them – practically every one of the thousands of EU laws that apply in the UK would need to be reviewed, and then assessed on its merits, before the Government would decide whether or not to leave it on the statute book.”

UKIP’s Leader in the House of Lords, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, dismissed the report as “partial nonsense.”

He said, “”The House of Lords is a very Europhile place. Perhaps two of the 19 members of the EU Select Committee could be described as Eurosceptic, and many of them are amongst the most ardent Europhiliacs in the country. Small wonder they have produced such partial nonsense.”


  • 23 June: UK 'leave/remain' referendum on the EU.
  • 2017: UK chairs rotating Council of Europe. However, the report warns the UK would have to rescind this role if there is an 'out' vote, so it was not overseeing its own exit negotiations.

House of Lords European Union Committee - The process of withdrawing from the European Union

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