When Britain’s new immigration bill became law earlier this month, the home secretary, Priti Patel, tweeted her “delight, after many years of campaigning,” that free movement between the EU and Britain would at last end on 31 December.
But the bill does not just repeal EU citizens’ right to work and live in UK – a key Brexit ask – or British nationals’ right to do the same across the bloc. It will also make it very hard indeed for many Britons who have already moved to ever come home again.
As Brexit negotiations on a trade and security deal enter what foreign secretary Dominic Raab said could be their final week, many Britons and Europeans are facing major life changes regardless of what happens this week.
“It will place a lot of people before an impossible choice,” said Jessica Frizell, 46, who has lived and worked in Italy since 1997. “I built my life on my EU rights. The fact I may not now be able to go back with my family is … a shock.”
Frizell, who works for a school textbook publisher, is a model for almost half a century of British EU integration. Her husband, Alberto, 44, is Italian, a sales manager for a textile company in Tuscany; the couple have two girls aged nine and 13.
Frizell’s mother, in her 70s, lives in Cumbria; her brother is in Poland, with a Polish wife and – like his sister – two dual-nationality children. “We’re very settled; we have careers and families,” said Jessica. “We’re not thinking of going home yet.”
But that may change. “My big worry is my mother,” Frizell said. “She’s fit and well, but if she needed looking after … Or if the girls go to university in the UK, settle, have families: we might want to move. Well, we could now – but not for much longer.”
At present, said Fiona Godfrey of British in Europe, whose tireless but ultimately futile lobbying helped secure a first defeat of the bill in the House of Lords, Britons in the bloc can move back to the UK with EU family members, “almost without restriction”.
That right, however, will end on 29 March 2022. “After that,” Godfrey said, “if you want to come back with your non-British partner, you’ll need to earn £18,600 a year, a lot more if you have non-British kids. And if your partner wants to move and be able to work in their own right immediately, they’ll have to meet the new points system.”
Godfrey said up to 40% of Britons likely to want to return feared they would not fulfil the income requirement, and most of their partners did not do jobs on the Home Office list. Associated costs – NHS surcharges, fees – could run into thousands of pounds.
“It’s just a massive change,” said Godfrey. “It basically asks people to decide now, in the next 15 months, whether they want to change their whole lives. For many, it’s asking them to choose between elderly parents in Britain and partners and children in the EU.
“It’s a terrible choice, and it’s really not one that any civilised government should be asking its citizens to make.”
Making matters worse is the fact that the act – whose full name is the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 – actively discriminates against British citizens abroad compared to EU citizens living in the UK.
Under the settled status scheme, family members of EU nationals may join them in the UK from the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December. “The government seems to have singled out its own citizens for harsher treatment,” Godfrey said.
“It’s extraordinary, really: why would you hurt your own people for exercising rights that you granted them? Punishing them for taking the opportunity to live abroad and marry foreigners. So much for Global Britain.”
According to a recent British in Europe member survey, more than 30% are under 44, have jobs, partners with jobs, and children in school in their host state – so might find it hard to move fast. Of the rest, those over 55 could have trouble finding a job in the UK.
While barely 10% are currently considering returning to the UK, the group says, 79% would like at least the option of being able to do so later. “The government said we wanted special treatment, to bypass the law,” Godfrey said.
“We just wanted to keep the rights we had. And we’re not talking about a never-ending stream of people – it’s a finite number, those in the EU on 31 December 2020, most of whom would be unlikely to come back anyway. It’s just nonsense.”
Some are more forthright. Arthur Wood, 60, lives in Geneva with his Norwegian wife, an EEA citizen who works for the United Nations. “Boris Johnson and many others promised that expats would not be affected by Brexit,” he said.
“We’ve been married for 25 years, have three dual-nationality children, pay UK tax on our London home – and if we don’t move back by March 2022, face a means test to be able to come to Britain with our families. My wife faces a choice between her career and her UK rights. It’s hard to see any moral or pragmatic argument for it.”
Emma Woodford, 49, has been in Belgium since 2009, Married to a Dutchman, with two daughters aged 13 and 15 born in Bangkok, she recently took Belgian citizenship – but cannot transfer her British nationality to her daughters because she, too, was born abroad.
“If we wanted to move back we’d have to go through so many hoops now,” Woodford said, “and we’re not sure we’d meet the minimum income. It’s seems unfathomable to me … Horrendously unfair, and such a waste of time and money.”
Sue Tremenheere, 57, who has lived and worked in Rome since 1986, said she and her Italian husband “could not possibly decide by March 2022” whether they might want to settle in the UK. It was possible, she said: one daughter was already at university in the UK, the other may follow suit.
“But how can we know now? What makes me most angry: my sister has been in Australia for years – she knew when she left she might have to go through the hoops to come back with a family. But this was a right I had that’s been taken away.”
In Thessaloniki, Fay Castling, 50, who first came to Greece as a Thompson Holidays rep in 1992 and never quite managed to leave, also has a son studying in Britain. She had always planned to accompany her daughter, who has a lung condition and needs special care, should she decide to follow.
“Brexit means I can’t do that now, because I don’t yet have a full residence permit, so I can’t leave Greece for more than three months,” she said. “Then we thought: perhaps my husband, Kyriakos, could take a year off and go instead of me. Now that’s not possible either, because of the Immigration Act.”
The couple would be “very unlikely” to reach the minimum income requirement were they ever to decide to move to the UK together, Castling said. “It just seems so sad,” she said. “So many people’s choices taken away – all those things my generation could do … And now it really seems like I may never be able to go back.”
Some in the UK are worried, too. Barbara De Vita, 69, and her Italian husband Piero, 76, returned to the UK in 1996 after 25 years in Italy. They have two sons, Christian, born in Italy but currently living in England, and Daniel, born in Britain but currently living in Sweden with his Franco-Swedish partner and their child.
“Daniel may want to come back – not yet, certainly, but at some stage,” Barbara said. “And what’s so absurd is that at the moment, our son who was born in Italy has more right to be in the UK than one born in Britain. Our MP, Matt Hancock, said this was about fair and equal treatment for all. It doesn’t look very fair or equal to me.”