Fearful and Uncertain, Continental Brits Brace for Brexit Vote


Alexander Bailey gurgles in three different languages. At six weeks old, he may be one of the last European Britons.

Ineligible to receive Austrian citizenship until age 10 despite being born in Vienna, his British father and Russian mother hurried to get him a U.K. passport before it was too late.

“I want him to be European,” Michael Bailey, 38, said. “I needed to make sure he got a British passport that still said ‘European Union’ on it.”

A banking supervision translator and 16-year Austrian resident, Bailey is just one of the approximately two million Britons living in continental Europe who face uncertainty and upheaval over Britain’s EU referendum, a population size greater than any U.K. city bar London.

The U.K. government warns that the status and entitlements enjoyed by these expats, such as specific rights to work, to access health care and other public services, would not automatically apply should Britain vote to leave the EU on June 23rd. They would be subject to renegotiation, a process the government says could mean “a decade or more of uncertainty”.

“EU membership gives U.K. citizens a wide range of enforceable rights, including access to health care”

“It could drag on for years,” Bailey said. “I just have this feeling that there’ll be one partner in the EU who’ll be aggrieved that we have the temerity to even want to leave and might just put the kibosh on renegotiating anything.”

Numerous entitlements would be subject to review. British citizens living and working in another EU country, for example, currently have access to health care on the same basis as citizens of that country. British expats in receipt of a U.K. state pension also have the right to treatment in an EU country, paid for by the U.K..

“EU membership gives U.K. citizens a wide range of enforceable rights, including access to health care,” George Peretz QC, a barrister for Monckton Chambers in London, said. “Brexit could remove those rights.”

“I handed a CV in and I got a job. I don’t think it would be that simple if Britain left”

Jessica Storey, 20, pulls pints of John Bull English ale at The Bombardier pub in Paris. She arrived in the city on November 13th 2015, the night of the terror attacks, and briefly worked for an artist. Now serving Frenchmen and expats alike amidst flags bearing the cross of St. George, she fears how a Brexit might affect her right to live and work on the continent.

“I just turned up,” she said. “I got on a bus and I went to France. I got off the bus and I handed a CV in and I got a job. I don’t think it would be that simple if Britain left.”

Uncertainty over the rights Britons would enjoy in a post-Brexit Europe stems from the lack of precedent; no country has ever left the EU and tested the withdrawal procedure under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

“I’m in a lucky position,” Storey said. “I’m employed, I’m already settled here, so I feel like I’ve got a strong case. But for other people maybe it wouldn’t be the same.”

The uncertainty extends to Britons doing business in Europe. In a survey, 85% of the members of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce, a group of 700 enterprises that do business across the English Channel, signaled their opposition to Britain leaving the EU.

“The uncertainty will mean that many decisions are delayed which could mean a bigger impact on business”

“The primary problem is that, under the Lisbon Treaty, there’ll be a two year period of negotiation,” Bob Lewis, President of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce, said. “That’ll be in the hands of the EU and Britain will have little say over that. I think the uncertainty will mean that many decisions are delayed which could mean a bigger impact on business.”

In the short term, British expats face the immediate risk of a decline in sterling. On April 9th, the pound fell to €1.23, its lowest in more than 18 months. In separate research notes, UBS and HSBC have warned that the pound could hit parity with the euro in the event of Brexit.

Paid in euros and servicing a euros-denominated mortgage, Bailey is protected from the currency risk, but he sees less safety for expat pensioners. “Pensions haven’t been rising, sterling’s been falling, everything gets that little bit tighter financially,” he said. “And that’s before the big question mark of what happens in the event of Brexit to the exchange rate.”

Pensioners may also be hit by the loss of an agreement that currently sees their state pension rise in line with U.K. inflation even if they are based in another EU country. British expats in Canada and New Zealand, for example, do not benefit from such an arrangement.

“If we voted to leave, it could complicate things”

British students in the EU also face upheaval in the event of Brexit. Tom Fenton, 21, a British student on exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, expressed fears he would no longer be eligible for Erasmus funding, a lump sum from the European Commission that subsidizes living costs, which currently stands at around €300 – €400 per month. “Without that money, I would not have been able to study on this year abroad in Paris,” he said.

Students from Switzerland were cut off from Erasmus two years ago after their country voted to limit the number of workers coming in from the EU. Britain could face a similar retaliation.

As EU citizens, British students also enjoy preferential rates of tuition at EU universities compared to non-EU citizens. A Master’s degree in humanities at Leiden University in the Netherlands in 2016/2017, for example, costs €1,984 for EU citizens, compared to €16,400 for non-EU citizens.

Unable to vote in the EU referendum due to being away from the U.K. for more than 15 years, a rule that renders around a million of the five million overseas Britons ineligible, Bailey has set up a blog to encourage his fellow expats in Vienna to vote.

“It’s more for my son,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest reasons for me being active and pushing people towards voting. I don’t see them throwing a three-month old baby on the street, but if we voted to leave it could complicate things.”



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