How far would you go to protect your freedom of movement and EU citizenship rights? Many British citizens have taken the difficult decision to become citizens of an EU country. Here are personal stories how and why they remained European.
How we lost EU citizenship
When Brexit negotiations first began freedom of movement was still on the table – at least as far as the EU was concerned. Until, that is, Theresa May got out her red pen and started drawing lines through the Withdrawal Agreement. The people had spoken, apparently, and determined that freedom of movement had to go. The implication was that, in an effort to restrict EU immigration, the free movement of people must come to an end.
The fact that the UK always had the power to restrict immigration – even when it was an EU member – but chose not to was a fact that was conveniently glossed over. What many UK citizens failed to appreciate was that the freedom of movement being removed, was their own.
For UK nationals already living in the EU, the new post-Brexit rules mean that the right to live, study, work, retire in an EU country now only applies to the country in which they are legally resident. The ability to move freely from one EU country to another is no longer an easy option.
One way to regain lost EU citizenship rights is to take up citizenship of your country of residence. It’s not a course of action for the fainthearted, and can be a long, painful, expensive process. It requires a good standard of knowledge of the host country’s history, culture and language. In some cases – as in Spain – it even requires giving up your British citizenship, as Spain does not allow dual nationality.
I spoke to some (former, in some cases) British citizens about their reasons for applying for citizenship of their host country. This is what they had to say.
In order to obtain German citizenship you must have lived in the country on a residence permit for at least eight years. British citizens who applied for German citizenship before the end of the Brexit transition period – while still EU citizens – were able to retain their British passport. Now Britons are no longer EU citizens, retention of British citizenship is no longer always an option.
On the morning of the Brexit referendum Dale Alison and her husband made the decision to apply for German citizenship, saying the idea was a ‘no brainer’. Dale has lived in Berlin since 1978, and it had always been her dream to retire to Spain. Dale told me, “not only did we apply for German citizenship as a family, but I found myself helping others through the same bureaucratic process. We are now happily settled in Spain, though our children still live in Germany. They, like us, are free of restrictions to come and go as we please thanks to us all remaining EU citizens”.
John Lewis has only just begun the process of applying for his German citizenship. Although he has gathered all the necessary forms and documents, getting his British birth certificate translated into German took longer than anticipated. John has been working as an IT consultant in Germany since 2007, but until last year, had kept a house in the UK. He has now sold up completely, and “has no intention of ever returning to the UK”. The most important thing, he said, was “to get back my EU citizenship and keep all my European rights”.
In 2018, Chris Atkinson-Price became a dual national in Germany. Having lived in the country for 17 years, she says she had many reasons for applying for citizenship. “The Brexit vote left me feeling betrayed and ashamed of the UK and made me even more grateful to feel European”, she said. “I have friends throughout the EU and want to retain the ability to move nearer to them in the future. My freedom of movement is very important to me. My British passport is now locked away in a safe. I doubt I’ll ever bother to renew it”.
Swapping a British passport for a Spanish one
To apply for Spanish citizenship you must have been a legal resident in Spain for at least 10 years, have been born in the country or have a Spanish parent. Spain does not allow dual citizenship, so applicants must be willing to renounce their British passport in favour of a Spanish one.
Helen Johnston, a translator, has started the process of application for Spanish citizenship. As her father is from Northern Ireland, Helen already has Irish citizenship. “However, Spain is my home, so in the end”, Helen told me, “I decided I would prefer all the rights and responsibilities of Spanish citizenship, even if that means renouncing my British citizenship”.
Mother of two Sarah Chambers runs her own business with her Spanish husband while studying law. She said, “The UK has forgotten about the Brits living in Europe”. Having lost her right to vote in UK elections, Sarah is looking forward to being able to vote in Spanish national elections once her citizenship is approved. She added, “I wish to keep my freedom of movement, right to reside, work and study in the European country of my choice”.
Having lived in Spain for most of her life, Lydia Biggie never really considered becoming a Spanish citizen until five years ago. “Brexit finally made me make the move and I only wish I had taken the decision sooner”, she said. “My children and grandchildren were all born in Spain, so I’m looking forward to becoming a European citizen again, like them. I can’t wait to travel with my new Spanish passport”.
A marine scientist, who wished to remain anonymous, was unable to continue working across Europe. His UK-based firm told him that post-Brexit, it was more difficult to employ a Brit than a North African. He told me, “Fortunately, I have Spanish heritage on my mother’s side, which has given me the opportunity to attain Spanish nationality. It has been an extremely long-winded and bureaucratic process, but the last stage – actually getting my Spanish passport – has taken the longest. The Spanish consulate in London has been completely inundated with applications. The idiocy of Brexit has effectively made me redundant and driven me out of the UK in order to earn a living”.
Friends David Eldridge and Lawrence Renaudon Smith, who live in Majorca, are both now Spanish citizens. Lawrence considered applying back in 2003, when he first became eligible, but ruled it out as he did not want to renounce his British citizenship. After the Brexit referendum, he decided that was a price worth paying “for the advantages and convenience of being an EU citizen”. He was unable to vote in the referendum and said,
“Both the British government and the pro-Brexit voters had no regard whatsoever for the more than a million British citizens who live in the EU. In fact, once you lose the right to vote, you really aren’t a proper citizen anymore”.
David has only just received confirmation that his application has been successful. He started the process following the 2019 general election “when it was clear that Brexit was going to happen”. He booked the necessary tests, sent off his birth certificate with a Spanish translation, as his own way of “taking back control”. The process was long, and delayed by Covid, but David is now looking forward to his formal pledge of allegiance. He is not, however, looking forward to the tiresome process of updating his details with every Spanish institution from the tax office to the local council, from the social security office to the Direccion General de Traffico (DGT), the Spanish body responsible for issuing driving licences. He believes all the hassle will be worth it though as, “I’ll be European again and be able to vote in Spanish elections”.
Exercising her free movement rights, translator Zoe Adams Green moved from Spain to Italy to marry her Italian partner in 2018. She passed the language test, but Covid made it difficult to obtain the three criminal checks needed, slowing down the application process. Zoe said she is pleased that Italy allows dual citizenship, but said, “if push had come to shove, I’d have reluctantly renounced my British citizenship. It’s a no brainer, really – the right to live and work in a single country or the right to live and work in 27 countries”.
Laura Shields never seriously considered taking Belgian nationality before Brexit, but the referendum “crystallised that decision for me”, she said. “It wasn’t just about protecting my free movement rights (which I rely on for work) but also about positively choosing Belgium. Plus, I wanted to vote, and I wanted my son to have the same European opportunities as me.” Laura says she feels “very lucky that the process went smoothly. Given how destabilising the past six years have been, having Belgian nationality is something I’m grateful for every day. I can’t imagine how stressful it must have been for other people who didn’t have the same options”.
Although Suzanne Davis lives in Spain, she chose not to apply for Spanish citizenship as she wanted to retain her British passport. She said, “After two years, a lot of paperwork and several trips to the embassy in Madrid, I have managed to secure my Slovak nationality, through my mother”. Her two children are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their Slovak passports, as they “want to keep their options open” and may wish to study or work elsewhere in the EU or the UK in the future.
Another West England Bylines writer, Philip Cole, who is the former head of English translation at the European Parliament, found the process of applying for Luxembourgish citizenship relatively straightforward. British citizens need to have become legally resident in the Grand Duchy before 31.12.2020. “I became legally resident in October last year”, says Philip. “You need five years’ residence, but the fifth year has to be the year up to the point when you apply for citizenship”. Philip was previously resident in the Grand Duchy from 1987 to 2015. “After the referendum – we won in Cheltenham with 56% of the vote – I was seriously depressed at the loss of my European identity. Hence the move back to Luxembourg”. In addition to the residence requirement he has to do 24 hours of Luxembourgish language (not exactly a hardship if you know German), although he doesn’t need to pass a test because of his previous lengthy period of residence. Luxembourg allows dual citizenship.
The luck of the Irish
By far the simplest way for UK nationals to retain their prized EU citizenship is by applying for an Irish passport. Anyone born in Northern Ireland or with an Irish parent or grandparent is eligible, and it’s not just Brits abroad that are applying. According to Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, 422,000 British citizens in the UK alone applied for an Irish passport between 2016 and 2020. That compares to an average of around 55,000 per annum for the two years prior to the Brexit referendum.
Journalist Sarah Farrell has lived in Spain for 16 years and is now the proud owner of an Irish passport. Sarah said, “I have now spent a lot of time and money getting back the rights I enjoyed before Brexit. I am just so sorry that Brits will not be able to have the same freedom to travel and work in the future”.
Claire McNally, who comes from Scotland but lives in Brussels with her Belgian husband, says she feels much more secure now she has Irish citizenship. Apart from any potential concerns regarding employment, Claire hated the label of third country national and the inferior status that implied. She told me, “I didn’t want to have to stand in a different queue from my husband and kids at passport control when travelling. I also so wanted to remain an EU citizen and enjoy all the benefits that go with that”. Claire now has a new Belgian ID card that identifies her as Irish and confers on her full EU citizenship rights.
A Northern Irish teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, moved to Galicia in northern Spain in 2015. He described his Irish passport as an “upgrade”, though he admitted he didn’t at first feel comfortable about making the application as it felt “a bit like cheating”. He added, “In 2019, I finally came to accept the way things were going with Brexit and decided to act. Now I just feel very fortunate that this was an avenue open to me that could make a bad situation easier. I don’t think I will bother to renew my British passport when it expires as I can’t see any value in it anymore”.
Debbie Williams MBE is no stranger to moving around Europe. Originally from Wales, Debbie and her family now live in Spain, having previously been residents of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. She told me:
“Working and living across many different EU countries never once did I ever question who I was or where I belonged. Being a British European opened up a world of opportunity and rights”.
Debbie said her time in HM forces gave her a unique perspective on “Britishness” and that Brexit has “adversely affected my sense of home, identity and belonging”. Thankfully, due to her Irish heritage, she will soon be the proud owner of an Irish passport and a “new identity” which she will “cherish and be proud of”.
Regardless of your opinions on Brexit, many of us took the benefits of EU membership and the associated rights of being an EU citizen for granted. If we were aware of the advantages at all, we may have been ignorant of who we had to thank for our good fortune and freedoms.
They say you never really appreciate the value of something until you’ve lost it. That is certainly true of the freedom to live, love, work, study and retire in any one of 27 distinct and wonderful countries. We will never take that freedom for granted again. I sincerely hope, one day, that we will all regain the rights we have lost. In the meantime, British citizens at home and abroad will do whatever it takes to be full European citizens again – including the father of the prime minister.
Ed: If you have a story to tell about EU Citizenship, we’d love to hear from you. Just email [email protected].