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Brexit sparks surge in EU passport applications

Published: Wednesday 09 May 2018

By David Fuller

As the date of Brexit draws ever closer, a growing number of Brits are seeking to acquire EU passports. Recent data from the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, reveals that there has been a sizable increase in the number of Brits applying for citizenship of another EU country.

Over twice as many Brits becoming EU citizens post-Referendum

The statistics reveal that the number of UK citizens who acquired the citizenship of an EU member state more than doubled in 2016, from around 2,480 to 6,560. An increase of 165 percent. This was easily the largest annual total seen since Eurostat began keeping records in 2002.

The EU country giving Brits the most citizenships in 2016 was Germany (about 40 percent of all citizenships granted), with Sweden second (15 percent) and the Netherlands third (10 percent).

A German passport is particularly desirable, as it allows a holder to travel to 177 countries without the need of a visa. This is more than any other EU passport will allow.

Brexit boom

Given that the EU citizenship application figures were taken from 2016, the year in which the EU Referendum took place and the Brexit vote was made, it is probably safe to assume that the numbers have risen even higher in the past 18 months.

Brexit is undoubtedly a key reason for the huge surge in EU citizenship applications from British citizens. With the UK set to leave the EU in March 2019, British citizens are anticipating losing many of the freedom of movement advantages that they currently enjoy with other EU member states. Although free movement is expected to continue throughout the Brexit transition period until 31st December 2020, what happens after that remains unclear.

“The increase in Britons acquiring the nationality of other EU countries is obviously driven by the prospect of Brexit,” said Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics at King's College, London. “It is very likely to make UK citizenship much less useful for working, living and travelling elsewhere in the EU. It would be very surprising if this trend did not continue."

Expat uncertainty

This uncertainty has already caused many British expats to return to the UK.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of British citizens living in the European Union has declined rapidly in the last 18 months. Prior to 2017, there were an estimated 1.22 million British citizens living in another EU country. By January 2017 this total had dropped to 900,000, while by April 2018 it had dropped to 784,900.

Typically, only Brits who meet the particular residency requirements of their adopted home country will be eligible for citizenship. Without citizenship, there is no guarantee that British expats will be allowed to remain where they are living come 2021.
Euros, passport
Goodwill from popular expat countries

Of course, mass deportation is very much a worst case and highly unlikely scenario. Spanish authorities, for example, have already made clear their desire for British expats to be allowed to stay in Spain even if no freedom of movement deal is struck.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show back in October 2017, the country's foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said his government would ensure that the lives of ordinary Britons in Spain are not disrupted in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

“I do hope that there will be a deal,” Dastis said. “If there is no deal we will make sure that the lives of ordinary people who are in Spain, the UK people, is not disrupted. As you know, the relationship between the UK and Spain is a very close one in terms of economic relations and also social exchanges. Over 17 million Brits come to Spain every year and many of them live here or retire here and we want to keep it that way as much as possible."

However, even assurances such as this may not be enough. According to figures released earlier this year by Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), in the last five years, the number of British residents in Spain has dropped from 397,892 to 240,785. A fall of 157,107.
It would seem that Brits just don’t feel secure without citizenship.

Belgian or British?

Only last week, the EU Commission President himself, Jean-Claude Juncker, urged Belgium to grant around 1,000 British workers in the country Belgian citizenship.

Almost 1,000 Brits work in Belgium for the European Commission. While many of these workers meet the citizenship requirement of having lived in the country for a minimum of five years, a large majority have had their citizenship applications rejected. This is because as EU staff, they fail Belgian residency tests as they have quasi-diplomatic status outside the local tax system.

Junker has already promised his British staff that they will not be fired once they cease to meet the normal criterion for getting an EU job. Namely being an EU citizen. However, the decision could be taken out of even his hands unless Belgium relents on its current stance.

During a debate in the European Parliament last week, Junker appealed directly to the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, to relax the rules in this instance.

After praising Belgium’s generosity in hosting European Union institutions, Junker added, “I would also like the Belgian authorities to demonstrate the same generosity when it comes to conferring Belgian nationality on the British officials who are here in Brussels. They deserve it. But, as I know that the prime minister is sometimes extremely generous, I am absolutely sure that he will take our wishes and remarks into account.”

Michel’s response was rather non-committal, simply replying that his government would “consider it.”

Citizenship at any cost?

British expats throughout the EU will likely be doing all they can to acquire EU citizenship somehow. With this in mind, it is worth keeping a close eye on Belgium’s response to Junker’s proposal. A relaxation of the rules there may just open the door for expats in other countries to plead their case for citizenship.

Find out more about the implications of Brexit for British expats and homeowners overseas.