It’s been a fiercely contested campaign, which has at times resembled something more akin to a children’s playground argument than it has a debate that will impact on the future of millions of European expats.
However, as we move into the final straight, the final few days for politicians to get across their opinions on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU, questions of quite what will happen to British expats living in the EU, or those from the EU living in the UK, in the result of a Brexit are yet to be answered. In a campaign which has been, frustratingly, dominated by scaremongering tactics on both sides, immigration has been one of the major topics of discussion.
The one definite that we can take from a Brexit vote is that the freedom of movement pact that currently exists between all EU member states will cease to exist. So, as many leave campaigners desire, and seem to think is essential, it will become harder for EU immigrants to enter the UK. In fact, Britain would be able to focus on attracting only migrants with skills that supposedly benefit the country’s economy (talk of introducing an Australian-style points test have been widely bandied about). This would almost certainly lower the current net migration rate – another essential outcome according to ‘leave’ devotees.
The flip side to this, of course, is that it will also become harder for Brits to move to other EU countries. No longer will Brits be able to retire in peace to the French countryside or the Spanish seaside no questions asked. It is almost certain that the process of moving will become far more expensive, with countries looking to recoup some financial outlay from any new residents. It also likely that things like reciprocal health agreements will cease to exist – another factor that will hit expats where it hurts, in the pocket.
As to British expats who already live in the EU (or those who have come the other way) the future remains uncertain. At some stages during the last few months you could have been forgiven for thinking that a Brexit would lead to every single Brit currently living in another EU country (and there is reckoned to be around 4.5 million of them) being shipped back to the UK with 24 hours of a vote to leave being announced.
However, in spite of feeble threats made by some nations to do exactly this (hello, Belgium), this is extremely unlikely to happen. The Vienna Convention of 1969 states that the termination of an existing EU treaty “does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination.”
Therefore, those expats who are currently classed as permanent residents of their adopted home countries will almost certainly be allowed to stay where they are. There is a chance, though, that existing benefits, such as the aforementioned reciprocal health agreements, could be removed, meaning that the cost of living for expats could shoot up. That said, governments will also be mindful that any moves to make life difficult for expats living in their country could lead to retaliatory measures from the other party, thus affecting their own country’s citizens.
The truth is, should the outcome of Thursday’s vote be for the UK to leave the EU, it will only be the first stage in what will be months and months of negotiations, during which the rights of expats living in the EU will be discussed at length and, hopefully, the best possible solution for all arrived at.
And while there is no getting away from the fact that the future of EU immigration will undoubtedly be changed by a Brexit vote, your opinion on whether this will be a good thing or not will depend on your political persuasion. The answer to whether it is the right move in the long-term, will take far longer to determine.