Brexit? What about the Brits in Belgium?!
As Brexit approaches, The fear of a no deal or hard Brexit looms over Europe like the sword of Damocles. Citizens from the EU and the UK are in an uncertain state of worry about how Brexit will affect their lives. The prospect of a hard Brexit is particularly frightening for British citizens living in EU countries, as their new residency rights are not yet determined. Belgium is home to 25,000 British expats, and so, with a worst-case scenario, this outcome could ensue a loss of residence for many of them. Locked in a limbo where nothing is guaranteed, what choices do the British community of Belgium have?
Since the creation of the EU, all EU citizens have enjoyed free reign to live and work anywhere in the EU countries. This immigration is done purely through moving to the new nation and registering; as citizens require no approvement from the host country’s government to stay. Although there are pathways to citizenship for the EU immigrants in their new home, they are often not taken up as they are not needed for them to remain or work in the country. This practice has been the case with many British expats in Belgium, as they chose to stay under the guise of the EU’s protection.
A shock result
The 24th of June, The referendum results for Brexit were in. Against all experts opinions, evaluations, and the British public’s consensus of the outcome, the UK voted to leave the European Union. This decision created a shock wave of effects across Europe and spurred a surge of Brits to apply for EU nation’s passports; with Ireland receiving 4000 requests just four days after the referendum.
Caught in the same panic of loss of EU citizenship were British citizens living in Belgium. The fear of being repatriated back to the UK created a growth in British expats in Belgium to begin looking at obtaining citizenship; with 526 British applications approved for Belgian citizenship in 2016, compared 127 in 2015.
What are the options?
Although Belgian citizenship is easy to acquire compared to other EU countries, it is not without its difficulties. There are three options that the majority of British expats are likely to be applicable for. Applicants must have lived and paid income tax for five years in the country; be married to a Belgian or have Belgian children who are minors. Given exceptions are if you have lived in the country for an extended period (10 years) and you can demonstrate your assimilation into Belgian society.
The most common route for Belgian citizenship is with the person having lived and paid income tax in Belgium for five years. However, this situation is problematic for those who have had work sabbaticals in between; even if they have been as little as one week, or for those who have lived in Belgium just short of the five-year criteria.
A difficult path
Ruth Friedman is a British expat living in Belgium. She has lived in Belgium for 10 years and was previously married to a Belgian. She divorced from her Belgian husband and has continued living in Belgium for ten years undisturbed since. The thought of applying for Belgian citizenship never occurred to her. This sentiment immediately changed after the Brexit results. ‘The minute the results came in that the UK was leaving the EU, I started preparing all my paperwork to apply for Belgian citizenship‘, Ruth says. ‘I didn’t like the uncertainty of what Brexit could do to my right to stay in Belgium, and with no progress made with Brexit talks, I think it was a good option to pursue.‘
A self-employed well-being counsellor, Ruth did not have a smooth pathway to Belgian citizenship. ‘I was in a situation where I had a sporadic history of employment in Belgium. This excluded me from going down the normal route of obtaining Belgian citizenship‘. Having lived in Belgium for ten years, an alternative path to citizenship was still available to Ruth. ‘I had to demonstrate my assimilation into Belgium society. This required me to learn Dutch to an A3 level.‘, Ruth says. ‘This was difficult because I was working a full-time job at the time, and they expect you to give 400 hours, with all classes being in the workweek. That meant I had to take months off of my work.‘
After an arduous few months, Ruth succeeded in her application; now owning dual citizenship with both Britain and Belgium. But her experience is only a small glimpse of the myriad of situations that British expats in Belgium have to contend.
Beverley Sinton is another British expat caught in the confusion of a pre-Brexit Belgium. Having no formal job, she spends her time volunteering and jointly lives off her husband’s salary. Her husband is an Irish citizen and an employee of the EU. The fact that he is an Irish citizen will give him the right to remain, however, as workers from the EU enjoy a diplomatic status, he pays no Belgian income tax. So Beverley may not be able to apply for citizenship under an official spouse visa that Belgium offers.
‘The trouble with Brexit is that no one knows what’s going on‘, Beverley says. ‘Nothing has been made clear to me, and there are so many unique and nuanced situations, you don’t know what might apply to you.‘ Beverley has not yet applied for Belgian citizenship as not only is her husband an EU citizen, but both her daughters were born in Belgium and posses Belgian citizenship.
With strong ties to Belgium, The prospect of repatriation is unlikely in Beverley’s case. However, The current sentiments of the UK government on post-Brexit agreements state that citizens who already have residency; Even those with British born children, will still have to reapply for their residency rights. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, then it could happen that the EU would mimic any robust residency criteria that Britain enforce. Making it difficult for Beverley’s application post-Brexit.
A forgotten contingent
Perhaps the worst off from a hard Brexit are the British employed by the EU. An estimated 800 British people are hired to work in the EU institutions; with many of them choosing to live in Belgium. Not only will they face losing their jobs after Brexit, but now they are caught in a limbo where their status of obtaining citizenship is even more difficult; despite many of them having lived in Belgium for many years. With their diplomatic status exempting them from income tax, the Belgian government decided the EU protocol card is not valid for citizenship applications.
However, president of the EU commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently asked the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to offer British EU officals citizenship after Britain leaves the union and they lose their European citizenship. Michel said that his government were considering it, but has not yet offered any concrete answer or indication of what will happen.
Hoping for a deal
With those caught in the fringes of the Belgian application process, the best they can hope for is that an amicable deal made between the UK and the EU. The deadline for Brexit is now extended to allow sufficient progress to make a deal. Perhaps this could allow time for a more favourable deal to be made; one that allows residency for those unable to get citizenship.
But with Theresa May’s recent stance on Brexit, the ground gained seems to have stopped before progress could be made. With a variety of complicated issues surrounding Brexit, the prospect of a hard Brexit is looking like more of a possibility.
Text: Brelgium, photos: ©Pixabay