We’ve been asking Telegraph readers to send us their questions about the EU referendum. Hundreds have emailed firstname.lastname@example.org and more questions pour in every day.
One of the most popular topics for queries is how expats and people who own property in EU countries might be affected.
These concerns have clearly been sharpened by warnings from the Remain camp about the effect of Brexit.
British expatriates may have to stop living abroad in European countries like France and Spain if Britain leaves the European Union, the Government has suggested. Europe Minister David Lidington warned over the weekend that a British exit would see “everything we take for granted about access to the single market” in question, including “the right of British citizens to go and live in Spain or France”.
So should expats fear Brexit? What could happen to them if Britain leaves the EU?
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.
Where are Britain’s expats in the European Union?
The top destinations for British expats in the European Union are Spain (host to around 319,000), Ireland (249,000) and France (171,000).
Expats will be able to vote in the referendum (as long as they haven’t lived abroad for over 15 years).
Why the claims about Brexit impacting on expats?
Pro-EU advocates suggest that British expatriates reside in other European countries thanks to the European Union’s right of free movement, which means EU members cannot bar or expel citizens of other EU states. On that basis, a former attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC, has argued that a withdrawal would see British citizens living in EU countries “becoming illegal immigrants overnight” if Britain didn’t maintain some form of free movement after leaving the EU.
There are some fears that member states, angered by Britain exiting, could try to put pressure on British expats in revenge. As an 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, 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.”
Could expats really 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 3 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 Brexit see expats 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.
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 would 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 had left, Brits’ ability to live and work in EU nations would depend on new agreements the UK negotiated with those nations.
Could my second home in France or Spain be seized if Britain leaves?
No matter how hostile European nations become after Brexit, 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.