The UK government is launching a multimillion pound communications campaign to reach the estimated 1 million British citizens living in the EU to ensure they know what steps to take if they wish to remain in their host countries after Brexit.
And it is urging all EU member states to accelerate the process to enable British nationals to secure their rights amid concern among campaigners that some countries have not yet even opened schemes for UK citizens.
“UK nationals living in the EU must be able to rely on the rights the withdrawal agreement gives them, just as EU nationals living in the UK can.
“We continue to call on the EU and member states to protect the rights of UK nationals with faster implementation, longer application windows and clear communications, as the UK has done for EU citizens in the UK,” said a Foreign Office spokesperson.
Their call comes weeks after the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, wrote to the vice-president of the European commission, Maroš Šefčovič, saying that while the UK had given EU citizens 27 months to apply for settled status, some EU member states were planning “short application windows that may not allow sufficient time for citizens to secure their rights”.
The EU has confirmed that 13 countries, including France, where many British nationals live, have opted for a “constitutive” system similar to that in the UK requiring British nationals to apply for settled status.
The remaining 14 member states have chosen the simpler “declaratory” system that allows British nationals to register their residency to demonstrate their right to continue to live, work or study in their chosen country.
Spain, where an estimated 400,000 Britons live, has opted for the latter, giving campaigners hope that few will be left behind by the 30 June 2021 deadline for registration.
It has also launched what local British campaigners are describing as a “warm” campaign, with the minister for inclusion, Hana Jalloul, telling Britons who want to remain that “this is, and always will remain your home”.
It coincided with a joint statement with the British ambassador to remind Britons their rights are “guaranteed” if they are living there before 31 December.
The country’s national statistics show 360,000 British nationals have already registered to be in the country with 104,000 living in the Andalucía province, including 62,000 in the costas around Malaga.
Alicante and Valencia account for a further 97,000, with 40,000 and 29,000 in the Canaries and Balearics respectively.
Sue Wilson, the founder of Bremain in Europe, a campaign group for Britons in Spain, said the fact that the Spanish government have chosen a simple declaratory scheme allowing rights to be “guaranteed” without an application for settled state a “great relief to British immigrants”.
“We are grateful to the Spanish authorities for making the process as simple, seamless and painless as possible.”
However, there is concern that there are tens of thousands of Britons who are off the radar, some elderly or vulnerable, and some who just don’t use the internet who may be more difficult to reach.
The Foreign Office is working with three organisations in the country, including Age in Spain, with a big communications push to try to reach the over-65s around the Costas and Alicante.
“I suspect a large number of people are out there who may not understand that there is an issue that they have to deal with because of Brexit, some of whom may not like to approach officials because they don’t know or fear how it might impact on things like taxation, health care,” said Helen Weir, the director of Age in Spain.
Weir also said there was an important message to get out to relatives back in the UK. “If you have a relative in Spain who may not have residency or cannot cope with officialdom because they don’t speak Spanish or because they can’t cope with bureaucracy, you can contact Age in Spain and we can put them in touch with people who can help.”
Of the 26 member states (Ireland is an exception, with British and Irish having reciprocal rights to remain in each others country after Brexit), Spain is considered one of the most advanced in preparations for the human cost of Brexit.
France was due to open its application process on 1 July but has put it back to October because of Covid-19 and pressure will mount on countries to extend the deadlines for applications beyond 30 June next year to accommodate the challenges caused by the pandemic.
So far, 14 countries, including Italy, Sweden and Portugal, have extended the deadline for British people to register or apply for settled status until October next year.