The decision to finally leave the bloc has left thousands of EU citizens residing in London and other parts of the country clueless about the status of their residencies.
On December 31 last year, at 11pm GMT, the Brexit transition period between the United Kingdom and the European Union marked the final goodbye, 47 years after the country joined the trading bloc.The UK had finally left the EU - achieving Brexit - four years after the 2016 referendum.
New arrangements came into force almost immediately. These include Britons no longer being eligible for a European Health Insurance Card when they travel to Europe, and most notably, that citizens of both the UK and the EU citizens, will no longer enjoy free movement to live and work between the two as they once did. British travellers now face the non-EU passport queue and border controls will apply to goods. Paperwork will be checked on both sides of the Channel. All this has been in place now since January 1.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his New Year video message that the end of the four year Brexit deadlock had given him confidence. “This is an amazing moment for our country.’
Johnson tweeted that the UK was taking over the 2021 Presidency of the G7 Summit as well as the COP 26. He added this is a “hugely important year for Global Britain.”
In his New Year’s greetings, French President Emmanuel Macron said the UK remained “a friend and ally.”
From now on, things will become complicated and disruption is expected in the coming days and weeks for travellers needing to use the Eurostar, given the new border systems. The concept of border checks have alarmed passengers. On both sides of the Channel, British and French officials have recruited extra Border Force personnel. In a marked difference to before, EU citizens coming into the UK will be asked about the purpose of their journey and they will have their passports and ID checked. Officials will also check if EU citizens living in the UK have pre-settled or settled status.
“Remainers”, or those opposed to the break from the bloc, say the country will now be worse off. The rigorous customs checks in Dover for lorries who require the tunnel to reach Calais, as an example, is one of the ways the UK has lost out, say Remainers. They also suggest the economy will be hit twice as hard given that Brexit and the pandemic are occurring at the very same time. Businesses will also no doubt face uncertainty and some may even lose their jobs. The UK benefits being part of the EU, according to these voters, and should have stayed as a member.
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.” Her ambition, and that of her party, the Scottish National Party, is for Scotland to be one day independent and rejoin the EU.
But what do EU citizens living in the UK think of Brexit?
Mariaelena Agostini, a Multimedia Producer and Journalist from Italy who is currently living in London, says her first worry is “the costs".
"I have already received e-mails from restaurants and services for packages to be sent from Italy that costs will be higher. So the costs of living in London would be higher and the whole of the UK.”
The June deadline
Her biggest concern is that she has been living in London for less than five years and “only has pre-settled status in the UK which means that I have the rights to live here but then my right is then a paper that is digital. So it is just a digital confirmation I can continue to work and live in the UK and this doesn’t make me feel safe because what if there is a glitch in the system, my pre-settled status vanishes and I am no one in the UK and my rights just disappear so that’s my biggest worry.”
Mariaelena adds that “the fact I have a pre-settle status and not the settled status that means not the indefinite time to remain here is a bit stressful and when you have pre- settled status is that you cannot stay and be outside the UK for more than six months, otherwise you risk moving that status and you have to start everything from scratch again and that is really worrying because what if I want to find a new job abroad for a year or so, I cannot do that. I can do that but I would have to lose my right to remain in the UK and start everything again if and when I decide to come back so I am some sort of prisoner. It is a bit stressful.”
EU citizens residing in the UK before 31 December 2020, are allowed to stay but campaigners such as Catherine Smadja, President of the Association of French people in London, warn they have only six months to make sure they are granted settled status or pre-settled status by the Home Office. The deadline for applying is 30 June 2021.
“What worries me are French people who are going to arrive now,” Catherine Smadja adds.
“We have EU citizens in four categories – some who have got British nationality. They won’t have any problems. Those who don’t have British citizenship should think of applying because they won’t have problems. You will have the dual nationalities who won’t have problems with Brexit. You also have people who have 'settled status'. They will be able to live like they used to and use the National Health Service. They won’t have any difficulty. They will be able to leave the UK for a long time and come back when they want to.”
Smadja adds, “You have people who have pre-settled status. Their difficulty is that they cannot leave the UK for a long period. It is not a problem if they want to stay in the United Kingdom. I am a bit worried because in that category there are a few EU citizens who have arrived recently. Some people have come for 3-4 days just to have their plane ticket and hotel bill or youth hostel and they have been saying we will come back. What worries me with these young people, there is a great number who have full time contracts in France, a family and they want to come here. Some will go to Scotland. It will no doubt be easier but today the British Eldorado/dream is important for a lot of people and they will come here. Some people with pre-settle status will have to find a job but it will be difficult especially with Covid. I am worried. Will they be able to stay in the UK? It will be more difficult than before.”
The times where one could come to the UK, learn English and find a job, seem to be over. Those who arrive for the first time from now on, will have to go through the new points-based system, requiring a minimum salary of £28,000 for skilled workers. “The fourth category is that people who will arrive now will need a visa. Say they need their 70 points, they need to speak very good English. Lots of young people used to come here without knowing a word of English. You will see a lot of young people who will be living in the UK illegally because they will come with a tourist visa. Like you have Syrians in France who don’t have papers, you will have French people in the UK who will be living here illegally. The French Consulate has said you have to apply for your settled status.”
Maike Bohn, Co-founder of The3Million, adds, “If you have not applied to the EU Settlement Scheme yet, now is the time. You have six months to secure your right to live, work and study in the UK and consequences of not doing so by 31 June 2021 are disastrous.” She also worries about EU citizens losing their temporary pre-settled status due to absences that are often Covid-related. We continue to be very worried about those who do not realise they could lose all their rights from 1st July 2021, and those who will face discrimination and obstacles because they do not get a physical proof of their rights. We have repeatedly warned the UK government about these issues but ministers have not listened or engaged with us.”
She adds “We have seen many cases of people with pre-settled status being absent from the UK for more than six months in 2020 due to Covid and unless they managed to come back to the UK before 31 December 2020 to reset the clock they will lose any right to settled status. They will keep their pre-settled status until that expires and that is that.”
Some French people took the last Eurostar from Paris to London on New Years Eve in order to avoid chaos.
Gauthier arrived on December 31 for the first time. “I have just moved to London. I am coming to do an internship. This is a new place for me, I have already come to London before but this will be the first time that I will live here for good. I didn’t have time to do the right steps in order to get a visa, I took it too late, otherwise I would have come later so that is why I arrived today (31 December 2020).”
He will have to apply to achieve settled status, but is not worried about Brexit.
On the other hand, Mark Lupianez, who is half Spanish and half French, has been living in the UK since 2007-2008. He decided to become a British citizen in 2011 before the EU Referendum and studied for the exam ‘Life in the UK’, which, once passed, allows the student to apply for a British passport. He was about to sit the exam, but the outcome of the vote made him change his mind. Brexit’s win made he feel rejected.
“I applied for pre-settled status in early December. I work as a power analyst for an energy company and my wife who is French works for a bank. Our fears go along the lines of trust in the administration, as we are starting to see a hostile environment in the paperwork required, the fact that to have anything done requires a third department to provide the paperwork. In addition it is uncertain if our companies will be able to carry on their business from here, other elements that are unsolved is what happens to our pension schemes? There is deception and bitterness from the lack of trust in the government.”
Marc told me that his Spanish and French friends are taking their contingency plans into their hands: selling their flats and renting so they are not stuck here.
Another French citizen in London, Florence Cyrot, says she worries that students from the EU won’t be able to come and study in the UK. “They would need a visa that costs approximately £350, they need to pay for the NHS at a cost of £300 per year and won’t be able to come and do internships as they used to before. British universities will make EU students pay the same fees as non-EU students. About £14,280 per year.”
Brexit worries EU citizens in the UK mostly in how their daily lives will now change after this seismic event. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, should Scotland one day win independence and rejoin the EU, the United Kingdom will find itself more politically divided than ever.