Campaigners have warned that tens of thousands of British nationals living in France and three other countries risk losing local healthcare, employment and other rights if they do not apply to remain resident in the next 14 days.
British in Europe, a group set up to protect the post-Brexit rights of about 1.2 million UK nationals living on the continent, have called on France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Malta to extend their 30 June deadline as the Netherlands has done, to 30 October.
“We think the deadline should be extended even at this latest stage, because you are removing people’s rights, which is very serious,” the group’s co-founder Jane Golding, a lawyer living in Germany, said.
“There is a special duty of care and no one should fall between the cracks. This will impact access to healthcare, pensions, rental of properties, ability to get mortgages, employments, all the same sorts of issues impacting EU citizens living in the UK.”
The highest number of British nationals vulnerable to loss of rights is in France, where according to the British embassy 135,000 Britons have applied for post-Brexit residency out of a population estimated at 148,300, leaving at least 13,300 at risk. The new permit will become compulsory from 1 October.
French and UK officials admit that because France does not require EU nationals to register, the true number of Britons living in the country may be much higher – and they are also much harder to contact than in countries such as the Netherlands, with pre-Brexit EU registration schemes.
Before Brexit, UK nationals had an automatic right to live, work, study and retire in another EU member state. But those free movement rights were discarded in the hard Brexit deal struck by Boris Johnson and Britons who were legally resident in some EU member states before 31 December 2020 must formally apply for a new status.
Campaigners say neither the French nor the British government – which has run information campaigns, including outreach events through embassies and residents’ groups and adverts on social media, in newspapers, on radio and on billboards – has so far done enough to raise awareness.
In France, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office placed adverts in 30 regional newspapers at the weekend and has more planned in the next fortnight, while a virtual celebration of the Queen’s birthday on 24 June will also offer support and guidance to any citizens who have not yet applied.
“With just two weeks remaining to apply for residency in France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Malta, we urge UK nationals living in those countries to apply for residency now, if they have not done so already,” a UK government spokesperson said.
“Support is available for anyone who needs help to apply. Even if they are missing documents, they should apply and explain in the application form. The important thing is to apply. Guidance is available on the ‘Living in’ guides on gov.uk.”
However, campaigners say the UK campaign was late coming and will not reach those who most need it. “The ads they’re running are centrally produced. The latest featured a picture of four elderly people walking on a chilly beach in Sweden,” said Kalba Meadows, of France Rights, part of the British in Europe organisation.
“It’s really not appropriate messaging. It’s just not going to get to the kind of people we’re most worried about: those who’ve been here for 40 or 50 years, or younger people who grew up here, have French spouses and children. None of them think of themselves as British – and there are a lot of them.”
The French government, meanwhile, has done “almost nothing”, Meadows said: “We feel they may have breached their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.”
There had been “no outreach, no awareness campaign – all that’s been left to civil society groups, and we’re confined to social media,” Meadows said. “We’re really concerned there will be large numbers of undocumented British migrants in France in two weeks’ time.”
According to the third report of the UK-EU specialised committee dealing with citizens’ rights, fewer than half of the 1,200 Britons in Latvia had applied, just 8,300 of the 13,600 in Malta had applied for status and 3,600 of the 5,300 British in Luxembourg.
British in Europe said it had no specific information on how British citizens who become undocumented migrants would be treated, or what the immediate practical consequences would be.
EU member states also needed to specify whether they will allow late applications on “reasonable grounds” and what those grounds may be, Golding said.
“There will be people who, say, have been married to an EU citizen and living somewhere for years, then have been widowed or perhaps had to go into a care home – plus they aren’t online,” she said.
“They just won’t know that they need to do this until they get asked for a document to access healthcare, for example,” she said. “Others are so well integrated they might not consider this is for them – they won’t realise their residency documents are no longer valid because of Brexit.”