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Brexit would leave two million British expats in legal limbo say peers

A British bar in Benalmadena, Spain. Expatriates across Europe would see many of their rights thrown into doubt in the event of Brexit, a Lords committee said today

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A vote to leave Europe would throw into doubt the rights of hundreds of thousands of British expats living in the EU, a committee of peers has warned.

The Lords’ European Union Committee said that determining the “acquired rights” of the two million UK nationals estimated to be living in the EU would be a key element of the withdrawal negotiations.

The new arrangements would need to cover access to health care and social security which Britons currently enjoy as EU citizens.

They would also need to settle the issues of residence rights, rights to take up employment and the reciprocal rights of EU nationals living in the UK.

“This would be a complex and daunting task,” the committee said.

There would also have to be a review of the entire corpus of the EU as it applied in the UK and the devolved nations, with the Government having to assess which laws it wished to retain – a process which could take years to complete, the committee said.

Overall, it warned negotiations for withdrawal and to establish a new relationship with the EU would take longer than the two years allowed under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

However, the committee cautioned, there was no guarantee that an extension would be granted, as it would require unanimity among the remaining member states.

Lord Boswell, the committee chairman  said: “We don’t take a view on whether the UK should leave the EU or not. But it is clear that if that’s what people decide, withdrawal would mean difficult and lengthy negotiations.

“It’s not possible to predict exactly how long it would take, but comparable international trade deals have taken on average between four and nine years.”

However, a leading think tank said that the committee was making unrealistic presumptions about the negative impact of Brexit.

Roland Smith, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute,  a free-market think tank, said: “The House of Lords claim that Brexit will negatively affect British expats following a vote to Leave is based on the presumption that the UK will leave the EU in a “complex and daunting” way, attempting to unpick many treaty obligations and partially replace them with a trade deal.

“This is very unlikely to be the case. The Conservative government, the majority of whom have declared for Remain, are not about to cut off from the EU in a lengthy and complex way.

“Equally the EU is unlikely to offer anything other than the ‘off the shelf’ EEA deal, similar to Norway and Liechtenstein’s, and will make a tailored deal for Britain impossible to discourage other members from leaving.

“The EEA option would have almost no effect on expats, or much else, because Britain’s single market participation and the four freedoms would stay intact at exit.”

Obama: Britain would go to the ‘back of the queue’ of trade deals if it votes for BrexitPlay!00:36

Last week, the High Court refused to help around 700,000 British expats in Europe who will be unable to vote in the EU referendum on June 23.

The people in question are barred from the Brexit vote as they fall under the ’15-year rule’ which prohibits those who left the country before 2001 from participating.

Harry Shindler, a 94-year-old war veteran who has lived in Italy since 1982 launched the court action, together with Jacquelyn MacLennan, a British lawyer living in Belgium since 1987.

They argued that the outcome of the referendum is so crucial to expats living in Europe that their rights are being breached by the ban on voting.

Mr Shindler and Ms MacLennan are in the process of appealing the High Court ruling, with a hearing at the Court of Appeal expected within the next few weeks.

At a glance | What is Article 50?

  • Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon gives any EU member the right to quit unilaterally, and outlines the procedure for doing so
  • There was no way to legally leave the EU before the Treaty was signed in 2007
  • Gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal
  • Once set in motion, it cannot be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states
  • Any deal must be approved by a “qualified majority” of EU member states and can be vetoed by the European Parliament

“Article 50 is a bit like The Bomb: best kept as an implicit threat.”

– Mats Persson, now a special advisor to David Cameron

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