What will Brexit mean for British expats?

Asa Bennett
British tourists have drinks at a English bar on March 17, 2016 in Benalmadena, Spain - 2016 Getty Images

Since June last year, one of the most popular topics for queries has been how expats and people who own property in EU countries might be affected by Brexit.

Now, that Article 50 has been triggered, here's everything we know so far about the position for expats.

How many British expats are there in the EU?

Just over 4.5 million Britons live abroad, with approximately 1.3 million of them in Europe, according to the United Nations.

Which countries do they live in?

The top destinations for British expats in the EU are Spain (host to around 319,000), Ireland (249,000) and France (171,000). Expats were able to vote in the EU Referendum (as long as they hadn't lived abroad for more than 15 years).

Credit: Factmint

Why the worry about Brexit impacting on expats?

British expatriates residing in other European countries are able to thanks to the EEU's right of free movement, which means EU members can't bar or expel citizens of other EU states.

Former attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC, has argued that Brexit would see British citizens living in EU countries "becoming illegal immigrants overnight" if Britain doesn't maintain some form of free movement after Brexit.

There have also been fears that member states angered by Brexit could try to put pressure on British expats in revenge.

For example, Spain could ask British retirees to pay for their own healthcare, according to the Centre for European Reform's John Springford, or move to curb access to healthcare services outright.

In a paper outlining the risks of Brexit prior to the June 2016 vote, the Government said: "Many UK citizens would want any negotiations to secure their continued right to work, reside and own property in other EU states, and to access public services such as medical treatment in those states.

"UK citizens resident abroad, among them those who have retired to Spain, would not be able to assume that these rights will be guaranteed."

FAQ | Brexit and EU nationals living in Britain

Could expats be barred from EU healthcare and benefits?

It's possible, but unlikely - not least given that it would open the door to retaliatory measures from the UK, which hosts its own share of expats from European nations. There are as many as three million EU nationals living in Britain.

British expats can also claim to pay their own way in Europe, as the UK paid £674 million in 2014-2015 to other European countries for the treatment of UK nationals.

However, the UK received just £49 million from other European nations in the same year to treat those from other countries residing in the UK.

Could expats be deported by EU members?

Almost certainly not. First, there are numerous political reasons for EU states not to do such a thing, including the treatment of their own, numerous, nationals living in the UK.

Mass expulsions of citizens from another developed economy would also startle foreign investors and potentially cause economic turmoil in the expelling country.

Expats would also enjoy significant legal protections that would apply after Brexit.

Many lawyers argue that British expats living elsewhere in the EU at the time of Brexit would have individual "acquired rights" under international law.

British expats

This is based on the Vienna Convention of 1969, which says that the termination of a treaty "does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination.”

The House of Commons Library says that "withdrawing from a treaty releases the parties from any future obligations to each other, but does not affect any rights or obligations acquired under it before withdrawal."

In other words, Brits who have already exercised their right to live in EU states can expect to keep that right after Brexit. One important point though: this only applies to people who have started expat life in the EU before Brexit.

After Britain leaves, Brits’ ability to live and work in EU nations will depend on new agreements the UK negotiates with those nations.

Could my second home in France or Spain be seized?

No matter how hostile European nations become, they still have to respect individual property rights. Both the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights make this clear.

What could they do to my property?

It's not all good news. The remaining EU nations could consider a variety of measures, depending on vindictive they feel towards Britain, like making foreigners homeowners pay more in tax.

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