If British voters decide on June 23 to leave the European Union, in effect Brits abroad will wake up as non-EU citizens, in theory putting them in a different queue for Swiss work permits, visas and various study programmes. How nervous should these “Brexpats” be?
The short answer is no one knows. Because no country has ever left the European Union, there are no precedents and everything will depend on how rancorous the divorce negotiations are between London and Brussels.
Nevertheless, a recent debate on the subject in Geneva, organised by the British Swiss Chamber of Commerce and featuring eminent British politicians, businesspeople and journalists, promised to shed some informed speculation on the matter.
“You shouldn’t be worried. You are safe,” Matthew Elliott, chief executive Vote Leave, the official Leave campaign, reassured swissinfo.ch (a concerned Londoner without a Swiss passport). “And so are Brits with holiday homes in the south of France and the Costa del Sol and so on.”
In November 2014, 32,848 Swiss citizens were registered at the Swiss embassy in London, according to the Swiss foreign ministry. At the same time, there were 41,577 Brits in Switzerland (out of some 1.3 million in Europe).
Around 446,400 Swiss nationals were registered in the EU with more than three-quarters of them living in France, Germany, Italy and Austria. Some 1,324,400 EU citizens were living in Switzerland.
“The reason I can say that with such confidence is because of the Vienna Convention, a well-established principle which means the EU would have to honour where people are currently resident. And also, interestingly, forcing people back to their countries would go against the principles of the European Union’s very own Charter of Fundamental Rights.”
He admitted, however, that things might not be so smooth for people thinking about moving abroad without a job. “Some people may not have the right to live here [in Switzerland], but people wanting to work here would be able to continue to do so.”
At present, citizens from the EU and the European Free Trade Association (which in addition to Switzerland comprises Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) are generally allowed to come to non-EU Switzerland for three months while they look for work (this can be extended for another six months). Everyone else must have a guaranteed work contract from an employer as well as the appropriate work visa before entering the country. In the event of Brexit, Brits would suddenly find themselves in the second group.
Not all the panellists shared Elliott’s confidence. “One of the worrying things about Brexit is what will happen to people who are British nationals but now live in Europe,” said Diane Abbott, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, whose Labour Party is campaigning for “Remain and Reform”.
“The question is will their rights be protected? Will they have access to healthcare? We’re still not getting answers from the Brexit camp. You could end up with British people needing visas to enter individual countries. In terms of being able to get on a train in London and travel all around Europe, we could be going backwards not forwards,” she told swissinfo.ch.
Indeed, on June 1 the Spanish Prime Minister warned that British expats could forfeit their rights to live in Spain if Britain votes to leave the EU.
Expat alarm was raised last year by former British attorney-general Dominic Grieve, who said two million British citizens working abroad could become illegal immigrants overnight if Britain were to leave the European Union.
In Geneva Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of The Sun, a British tabloid which is traditionally anti-EU but which is playing its Brexit cards close to its chest [update: on June 14, The Sun said it was backing Leave], agreed that in the event of Brexit the next two years would be “pandemonium” and that to know whether the short-term pain would outweigh the long-term gain “you’d need to be a soothsayer”.
Free movement of people
Graham Brady, a Conservative parliamentarian and Brexit supporter, dismissed fears that British expats in Switzerland or Swiss expats in Britain could be kicked out on June 24.
“Of course not. There are very longstanding international treaties which protect people in those situations. There’s a presumption that people who are settled in a country will have a right to continue working there if there is a political change or change of sovereignty,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“More importantly, and as a matter of common sense, the United Kingdom would have no earthly desire to remove good hardworking people who are contributing to the British economy and to British society. The same of course would apply to people from the UK in EU countries.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Brexit would see the free movement of people – a red rag to eurosceptics – being replaced by quotas for EU (and Swiss) citizens. If quotas were introduced, it’s not inconceivable that Brussels would respond tit-for-tat, or worse.
Brady rejected concerns that Brussels could, for example, freeze British scientists and students out of EU programmes, as it did with Switzerland in 2014.
“We make one of the biggest contributions to the EU science budget! And of course the biggest scientific collaboration in the world is here in Switzerland: the Large Hadron Collider [at CERN]. So it really is a nonsense to think that the European Union can control all cooperation in scientific research. If it tried to do so, the EU would be the loser.”
Around 70 people attended the British Swiss Chamber of Commerce debate, most from the world of business. Before the action started, they were asked to raise their hands if they supported Brexit. Seven did. After the debate the number didn’t change.
One of those in the Remain majority was panellist Ian Hudson, who lives in Geneva and has 35 years of international business experience.
“What Brexit would bring would be huge uncertainty. And one thing businesspeople don’t like is uncertainty,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“I look at it from a purely economic point of view. One of the tenets of business is ‘hang on to your existing customers’, and when you think that 50% of the UK’s exports go to the European Union, why would you put that into jeopardy? All the arguments I’ve seen for alternatives just don’t stack up – from a trade and economic perspective.”
Hudson believed Brexit would have a major impact beyond Europe. “Let’s not forget that all our friends and allies around the world and all the international organisations are saying we’re mad to think about coming out of the European Union. Whether it’s the US, Australia and New Zealand, India, the OECD, IMF and so on, everyone’s saying the same thing.”
When it comes to lessons from Switzerland’s experience with the EU, Hudson thinks one issue that is very clear is that if the UK wants to have some sort of different relationship with the EU, then it’s still going to have to abide by certain EU rules – and one of those rules is the free movement of people.
“You’re not going to have access to the Single Market unless you accept the free movement of people. So what’s more important? Restricting immigration or the economy? This is similar to the problem the Swiss have at the moment, so I think the UK can learn from that.”
Of the 65 or so Remainers and seven Leavers in the audience in Geneva, it was unclear how many would be casting or had already cast their vote – which British citizens lose after living abroad for 15 years.
This was a source of personal frustration for Hudson, but he was still confident his fellow Brits would do what he considered the right thing.
“I firmly believe that on June 23 the British people will wake up and say ‘Hang on a minute, this doesn’t make any sense’. I think British people, like Swiss people, are very pragmatic and I think they will vote to remain.”
Matthew Elliott was also upbeat. “I hope that [on June 23] Britain will be joining Switzerland as still very much a European country, very much part of the European continent – we can’t move from that – but one which has good neighbourly relations and good trading links with the rest of Europe but is still an independent sovereign country.”
What do the embassies say?
The British embassy in Bern told swissinfo.ch in April: “Because the [British] government has a clear position on the issue it is of course also the position the official public servants in Switzerland are supporting. The embassy is therefore in favour of a Remain vote in the referendum because the UK government believes Britain would be safer, stronger and better off inside the EU.”
The embassy did not, however, want to give “hypothetical answers” to what would happen following Brexit.
The Swiss embassy in London told swissinfo.ch in April that “the referendum is a domestic matter for the UK, and the Swiss government follows the development in this matter and will take note of the result.”
Asked what would change for the 33,000 Swiss people living and working in Britain, the embassy replied: “In the short-term, we would anticipate little to no change since Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allows a two-year period during which the UK would still be a member of the EU and would have to negotiate the terms of its exit and the framework of a new relationship with the EU. After this period, again, it would depend very much on the detail of the deals made.”
So far, the embassy said it had had a “low number of queries” from citizens.
British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce
The British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce told swissinfo.ch it remained “strictly neutral” regarding the British referendum, although it conducted a poll among its members, asking them what they thought the impact would be on their business if Britain were to leave the EU.
Of 185 respondents, 109 were in Switzerland, 58 in Britain and 18 elsewhere. The results were published on March 16.
51% said the impact would be negative, 13% said it would be positive and the rest believed Brexit would have no impact. Location didn’t make a huge difference to views, although the British companies were slightly more negative than the Swiss ones.
What do you think?