What Happens To British Citizens Living In Europe Now? Brexit Is Ushering In A Lot Of Uncertainty

The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union Thursday, which leaves millions of British citizens living in Europe in a precarious state. Currently, as part of EU law, all European citizens including Brits have the right to live in and work in any of the 28 member nations. But there's no guarantee that perk will remain after Britain negotiates its divorce from the bloc. Two years after the U.K. turns in its formal application to leave the EU, the U.K. will officially be out. And the right to free movement of its citizens could one of the biggest casualties.

Like nearly every detail of the Brexit, there is a lot of uncertainty. That's because the contentious negotiations between the EU and the U.K. haven't even started yet. If Britain stays in the common market, the freedom of movement principle will almost certainly remain. Other non-EU countries part of the European Economic Area such as Norway and Switzerland have been forced to accept it as a part of their association deals with the bloc. There's no reason to think that the U.K. will be granted a better deal, especially as EU leaders have asked the U.K. to leave as soon as possible, promising that there will be no renegotiation.

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Add on top of that the Leave campaign's goal of reducing immigration, and the U.K. may very well find itself outside of the single market. If that were to happen, there is still even more uncertainty as to what would happen to British expats living in Europe. Current Brits with jobs would probably be largely unaffected. They could probably continue on in their adoptive countries. There are about 1.2 million Brits living in the other 27 EU countries.

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The largest host country is Spain. British citizens there are on edge over the vote. "I just can’t believe it, what will happen to the UK now and to our rights as Brits living and working abroad?” Mary Reid, a British primary teacher in Madrid, told The Local. To be safe she and others are considering exchanging their British passports for Spanish ones. "One of the first things I am going to do is consult a lawyer and see where I stand on getting Spanish nationality," she said.

The odds that Brits would be kicked out, especially in countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Poland are slim because so many more of their citizens live in the U.K. — and they surely don't want to risk any tit-for-tat reprisal. More at risk would be U.K. residents' access to health care and other benefits usually reserved for citizens. Retirees may have to buy private health plans in Spain for example, but this is also seen as a long shot. British retirees could see their pensions be frozen too, this time thanks to British law. Currently they are guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments if they retire within the EU, but only EU mandates guarantee this.

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Even if another EU country tried to expel British citizens, they may not be successful. Some lawyers have argued that the individuals living abroad will have acquired rights under international law. That's because the Vienna Convention of 1969 says that ending 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.” So because the U.K. nationals living in Europe exercised their right of free movement while the EU treaties were in effect, it can not be withdrawn.

But for U.K. citizens looking to move to Europe after the Brexit, they could be subject to restrictions and visas similar to what Americans must have. That will all depend on the specific outcome of the withdrawal negotiations. So if you're British and have always thought about living in Paris, now is the time.