Dutch judges have referred a landmark case brought by British expats over their rights as European citizens after the Brexit to the EU's top court.

Stephen Huyton, one of the five British plaintiffs who has taken the Dutch government to court over the rights of British citizens in the EU after Brexit poses on February 6, 2018 in Amsterdam.
Stephen Huyton, one of the five British plaintiffs who has taken the Dutch government to court over the rights of British citizens in the EU after Brexit poses on February 6, 2018 in Amsterdam. (AFP)

A judge in Amsterdam said on Wednesday he will ask a European Union court to answer key questions about the rights of British citizens in the bloc after Brexit, in a decision that could provide important clarity for some one million Britons living on the continent.

Five British expats and two expat organisations -- Brexpats - Hear our Voice and the Commercial Anglo Dutch Society -- last month took the Dutch government to court to protect their EU citizenship rights after Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019, arguing they have independent rights as EU citizens, over and above being citizens of any specific EU member country -- including Britain.

"We refer the questions to the European Court of Justice," judge Floris Bakels said in a written verdict issued by the Amsterdam District Court, in the case which could have far-reaching implications for about the British citizens living in Europe.

The judges are referring two preliminary questions to the Luxembourg-based ECJ for an answer about the group's rights as EU citizens after Brexit, their lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm said.

The questions are: "Does Brexit mean that Britons automatically lose their European citizenship or do they maintain their rights, and if so, under what conditions?" Thijm said.

The group insist their legal rights as EU citizens -- including freedom of movement -- should therefore remain and be protected by The Netherlands even after Britain withdraws from the 28-member body on March 29, 2019.

"Theresa May famously said, 'Brexit means Brexit,' but the Brits currently living on the continent have no idea what that means for them," Thijm said. "Are you an EU citizen for life or can your citizenship be taken away from you? That is the fundamental question that will be put forward to the European Court."

Being an EU citizen

They asked the Dutch judges to refer the matter to the European court for clarification "as to what exactly being a European citizen means," said one of the plaintiffs, Stephen Huyton.

"I am shocked and delighted with the decision," he told AFP, shortly after the verdict was issued.

"But we have to realise that this is just the first step to eventually getting clarity about our status," he added.

Judge Bakels gave lawyers a week to comment on the decision and to add any other preliminary questions to be put to the ECJ.

According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, any person who is a citizen of an EU nation automatically is also an EU citizen. EU citizenship grants rights including the ability to move, work and live freely within the bloc.

It was not immediately clear when the European Court of Justice would deliver answers to the questions.

Officials negotiating Britain's exit from the EU have made progress on the protection of rights of EU citizens living in Britain and UK citizens living on the continent, but no full agreement has yet been reached on the issue. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the uncertainty so far left their fate up in the air.

'Forgotten many' 

Huyton, who has lived in The Netherlands for the past 24 years, said many expats "felt a sense of injustice," referring to them as "the forgotten many."

Their wishes were ignored during the 2016 referendum as many were not legally allowed to vote, despite still being British citizens and in many cases taxpayers, he said.

"This case intends to give us clarity. Not only to the 46,000 Britons living in The Netherlands," but also to around a million other British citizens living on the European continent, Huyton added.

"There is still a lot of discussion to come, but we feel like a bunch of pawns on a chess board."

A preliminary agreement in December between Britain and the EU sets out residency rights and benefits available to more than three million EU citizens living in Britain and another one million British nationals living in the EU.

The deal guarantees their post-Brexit rights, with family members also able to claim residence, but "as the British government has made clear -- nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," Huyton said.

Observers say that should the ECJ indeed rule that Britons have separate implicit rights as EU citizens it could have massive implications.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies