At the very least, living as a non-EU expat in France will be far less convenient than it is now. Just ask any Canadian, American or Australian.
Gone are the days when EU citizens had to jump through discriminatory bureaucratic hoops in order to live, work and retire elsewhere in Europe. It was once a bureaucratic nightmare but the EU changed all that.
The only hoops we jump through now are the same ones our French hosts encounter as well. Being in the EU allows Britons to live wherever they choose within the union without needing authorisation or a resident card, start a business with no more formalities than a Frenchman endures, trade without tariffs, have professional qualifications mutually recognised, drive on a British licence, benefit from reciprocal health care and social services, move about freely within the 28 nation bloc, have their rights as expats protected and defended, vote in local elections and even stand for political office in their town or commune.
All that without Britain needing to join either Schengen or the euro. Not bad.
A vote for Brexit would undeniably put those advantages at risk, especially for new arrivals. Why would the EU offer benefits to Britons that are not granted to Norwegians, Swiss or other non-EU nationals?
There is, however, some hope. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties contains articles that are based on “acquired rights” which individuals build up over time and keep despite any changes in future treaties between nations. We saw this when Greenland withdrew from the EEC. Britain withdrawing from the EU should not affect rights or obligations acquired by expats before withdrawal but future rights will not be guaranteed, either for newcomers or for current residents.
Most EU countries, including the UK, are signatories to the Vienna Convention but unfortunately France is not. However, many legal opinions say these protections would probably be there for existing expatriates.
So, in theory, most existing rights would still be honoured for Britons who reside in other EU nations prior to any treaty changes. The Vienna Convention obligations would prevent any government from deporting migrants from elsewhere in the EU who arrived under the old system. However, re-settling in another EU country – such as a Brit moving to Italy from France – would not be nearly as simple and could mean a loss of rights which citizens currently have. It’s not sure that resident Britons will be able to claim future rights or rights that are modified. We just don’t know what would happen in those cases.
A great unknown is what official attitudes of the remaining EU countries would be. Whatever acquired rights British expats will still have under international law will be regularly misinterpreted and not always respected by obstructive petty officials (and even higher up the administrative pyramid).
It’s not uncommon to hear “we are not in the EU here, we’re in France” from petty officials. They are wrong of course, and their obstructions can be easily overturned, but imagine what it would be like if bureaucratic jobsworths can correctly say “you are not in Britain here, you are in the EU”.
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