This week more than usual, Nick is searching the newspapers, on the lookout for any information on the referendum on the European Union (EU) promised by David Cameron: “Until now, I thought it would never happen. But the more I read, the more I start to worry about my business …“. The English owner of a chateau in the Gers, where he launched a business venture with two friends, observes bitterly the “No” camp’s progress in the polls. Nick, a British expatriate in France, can only watch and worry about the laborious negotiations between European leaders to meet the requirements of the British Prime Minister in defence of a “Yes.”
“We don’t know how this is going to affect us” exclaims Christopher Chantry, president of the British Community Committee, an association which advises expats in France. Recently, a question has been recurring at their quarterly meetings: what if the UK left Europe? “Some ask what will happen to them, others ask about the conditions for obtaining French nationality …” Meanwhile, despite being, like many, caught up in European decisions, he does not hesitate to warn about the possible consequences of an exit, particularly for the more vulnerable groups.
Concerns about pensions
Of the estimated 200,000 Britons living in France, a large proportion (some 69 000), is composed of retirees, mainly established in the Southwest. One is Brian Cave, a former teacher from Gloucestershire. Having lived in the Lot for 17 years, he regularly shares his experience on his blog Pensioners Debout! For some time, he has also worried about his future in France. “Our health bills here are sent to London and are covered by the UK. If we leave Europe, there is unfortunately a risk that this cooperation may cease. It would be a disaster for all pensioners living abroad, ” explains the octogenarian. Currently, British pensioners are covered by the National Health Service, which pays all their medical expenses in the countries of the European Economic Area (EEA). If a Brexit were to happen, they could be subjected to the same treatment as British expatriate workers. Brian Cave fears “France could impose any law on us. We will not be protected by the EU treaties.”
An EU withdrawal could also have implications for Britons wishing to move abroad. Living in France could be subject to obtaining a residence card (carte de séjour/carte de résidence) or a work permit (carte de travail). “The first time I wanted to move to France, I was told that I did not have enough income to get my residence card,” recalls Mr. Cave. The “expats” could also no longer be entitled to freedom of movement within the European Union. And the restoration of the old customs barriers could be an obstacle to future entrepreneurs: “Before the EU, there was a law in France that taxed the capital from abroad.”
The majority will vote for Europe
The concerns are real, but many still have trouble imagining leaving the EU. “In fact,” says Jeremy Stubbs, of Conservatives Abroad in Paris, representing members of the Conservative party living abroad “there is little chance of seeing things change. Even if we vote to leave, it will not come into effect for years. Simply leaving is not at all realistic … ” In the case of a “No” vote, the British Parliament will decide whether or not on leaving.
“I am confident that we are going to win!” Living near Carcassonne for almost twenty years, Grahame PIGNEY is behind the pro-Europe group Say Yes 2 Europe – Remain in the EU. He is confident of a “Yes” result: “The Eurosceptics talk the loudest, but I think that on the day of the referendum, the majority of Britons will vote for Europe.” His group tries to reassure UK citizens: “Not everything is black or white. Yes, leaving Europe will change things, but for the most part, the British will remain in the host country under the same conditions as today.”
It is possible that even if out of the European Union, the United Kingdom will remain a member of the EEA, with a status similar to that of Norway or Iceland. Both countries benefit, just the same as EU members, from freedom of movement of persons, as well as agreements on social rights.
But months before a decisive vote, many expatriates are thinking about contingencies in case of a “Brexit”. For Christopher Chantry, it is simple: “I will become French. My life is here now. ”
Brits excluded from the vote
“We are the most affected and are prevented from voting,” notes Christopher Chantry. While the idea of allowing 16- or 17-year olds to vote in the referendum on membership of the European Union was finally blocked by the government, expatriates based outside the UK for over 15 years will also be excluded. Despite its being a promise of David Cameron’s: the Queen’s Speech in May 2015 had announced plans to lift this restriction.
This reform, much awaited by British expatriates around the continent, will now only be made after the referendum. “This is a political issue,” says Grahame PIGNEY. “Labour supports the 15 year limit, and some of the Conservatives do not want expatriates to vote in the referendum. Cameron does not want to take on a fight he’ll lose in Parliament”. In case of a “Brexit”, these British citizens would be completely devoid of voting rights. They could not vote in France in local elections, reserved for European citizens, and could not vote in their home country either.