Botched announcements by Boris Johnson’s government are putting over a million British citizens living on the continent at the risk of “retaliatory deportations” and other consequences after Brexit, the prime minister has been warned.
UK emigrants living in EU countries fear that a string of hardline statements and “domestic grandstanding” targeting migrants by British government ministers has “directly impacted” the way UK nationals will be treated by their host countries once the United Kingdom leaves.
Groups representing British citizens living across the 27 EU countries have written to Boris Johnson accusing the prime minister of viewing his own citizens as “simply not a priority” and of “undermining” their legal status.
They say rushed announcements by home secretary Priti Patel that she would end free movement, and recent comments by her deputy Brandon Lewis that EU citizens could be “deported”, are being noted in European capitals – which have said they will treat the 1.3 million British migrants in a “reciprocal” manner to their own citizens.
“We pointed out diplomatically and privately back in August how we were directly impacted by the home secretary’s statement that free movement would end immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” the groups wrote in a letter to the prime minister seen by The Independent.
“Her name and announcement were mentioned specifically in meetings to us and in the European Parliament’s recent resolution on the UK-EU negotiations which raised grave concerns about how EU 27 citizens will be treated by the UK in the future.
“In an interview on 10 October – with a German newspaper, Die Welt – Brandon Lewis’s admission that EU citizens who fail to apply for settled status by the end of 2020 would be deported has again raised alarm bells. Did he stop to think that the draft German no-deal contingency legislation on the status of some 107,000 British citizens in Germany is currently being debated in the Bundestag? And did he think about the consequences of using the term ‘deportation’ in a German historic context?
“It appears that ministers are either unaware or indifferent as to the consequences of their pronouncements on our position in the countries where we live and are either unaware or heedless of the principle of reciprocity.”
The 1.3 million British citizens living in EU countries – the vast majority working age – are set to have their lives turned upside down by a no-deal Brexit, and under the terms negotiated by the government would suffer a loss of rights even if a last-minute deal can be secured.
Liberal Democrat MEP Lucy Nethsingha, chair of the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, told The Independent: “The UK government has its head in the sand when it comes to the needs of British nationals elsewhere in the EU.
“Domestic grandstanding by ministers like Brandon Lewis is undermining the fight of UK citizens elsewhere in the EU to secure their immigration status, which has been put in doubt by the extreme Brexit policies of this Conservative government.
“Mr Lewis was irresponsible to suggest that EU27 citizens may be deported. UK nationals, who moved abroad believing their right to do so would be lifelong, could now face the prospect of retaliatory deportations. The millionaire backers of Brexit will always be free to move where they like, freedom of movement extended these rights to everyone.”
Signatories to the letter include the leadership of local support groups like British in Germany, British in France and British In Italy, as well as umbrella groups like Expats Citizen Rights in EU and British In Europe, which have supporters across the 27 member states.
They say government policy of “undermining the status our EU 27 friends in the UK undermines our status” and that their treatment is “a far cry from the promises that were made during the Referendum campaign”.
Addressing the prime minister directly, the letter states: “Vote Leave – the group you spearheaded – pledged that nothing would change for the five million people whose lives would be directly affected by Brexit.
“In fact, you accused those of us raising these entirely prescient concerns of ‘scaremongering’. And even if a deal is reached by the end of October, we will lose key rights anyway, such as free movement, cross border working and recognition of qualifications.
“It gives us no pleasure whatsoever to have been proved right, and we call yet again upon the government to make good upon its duty to protect the interests of its citizens who reside in the EU 27.”
A government spokesperson said: “Protecting the rights of both UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK is a top priority for this government.
“We have been very clear that where individuals have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, they’ll be given a further opportunity to apply.
“We have made an unequivocal guarantee to EU citizens currently in the UK and we urge other EU member states to do the same for UK nationals living in their countries and give them the certainty they need by matching our generous offer.”
Mr Lewis, the minister who recently warned EU citizens living in the UK could be deported if they missed a key deadline, has said his words were “somewhat taken out of context” and that “there’s no reason this should ever happen”.
Ms Patel announced on 19 August that she wanted to end free movement as soon as the UK left the EU, but U-turned on 1 September less than two weeks later after it emerged the policy would likely face serious practical difficulties.
The full letter and signatories are below: