Leave.EU may keep name after no-deal Brexit if ownership handed to EU citizen

Alex Hern
Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Leave.EU will be allowed to keep its name after a no-deal Brexit, the European commission has announced – but only if it transfers ownership of the domain name to an EU citizen.

The ruling is a backtrack from a previous decision in March this year, which said that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, all UK-based owners of .eu domains would have to either physically move to the EU, or lose their website address permanently.

Now, the European commission has granted leeway to individual EU citizens who are resident in a non-EU nation, declaring that as of 19 October 2019 – 12 days before a possible no-deal exit from the EU – they will be able to register and own .eu domains.

Introduced in 2006, the top-level .eu domain was intended to allow businesses and organisations to embrace a pan-European identity online, without needing to use American-operated domains such as .com, .net and .org.

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But in the decade since, the highest-profile user of the service has been Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaign founded by the insurance magnate and Ukip donor Arron Banks. Famous for being the radical outrider to the more staid Vote Leave campaign, which ultimately won official status, Leave.EU has since been dogged by fines, police investigations and questions about its links to Russia.

The latest ruling from the EU will still see the organisation lose its identity, however, unless it takes action. Organisations and undertakings must be based in the EU to qualify for the domain, but a new loophole, introduced last week after outcry from EU citizens based in the UK who feared they would lose their digital identity, allows for domain names registered in the name of an individual to be kept regardless of residency, provided that individual is an EU citizen.

That means that all Leave.EU, or any other British organisation with a .eu domain, needs to do to keep its identity is hire an EU citizen, or find an employee who already qualifies for citizenship, and transfer ownership of the domain name to them.

The UK government advice does not go so far as recommending businesses exploit the loophole, however. Instead, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport recommends “that UK registrants continue to prepare for a no-deal scenario” by registering an alternative domain name and forwarding all requests to that new URL.