With "Article 50" triggered on Wednesday to formally launch Brexit negotiations, here's what Brits living in Switzerland and Swiss in the UK need to know.
At the end of 2015 (latest available data) there were 41,766 British citizens living in Switzerland (out of some 1.3 million in Europe), and 34,000 Swiss living in the UK.
The Swiss government admits many questions remain unanswered regarding bilateral relations following the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU within two years’ time.
On Wednesday, Doris Leuthard, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, said Brexit changed nothing for Switzerland “for the time being”. Defending Swiss interests continued to be a priority for the cabinet, she told the media. “That means we would like to have seamless relations with Britain once it is no longer an EU member.”
What was vital, she added, was that after the “very ambitious” two-year negotiating period no legal loopholes appeared with an exiting EU member. This was why Switzerland had been building up good relations with the British administration and why Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann was travelling to London on Friday.
“Obviously we need some sort of free-trade agreement,” Leuthard continued. “But because the Brits are still members of the EU and as such can’t officially negotiate [with a third party], it’s a question of sounding them out and getting things prepared. All departments already have treaties in the pipeline in the relevant areas.”
What does Brexit mean for British citizens currently living in Switzerland?
The Swiss government has already developed a ‘Mind the Gap’ strategy that it says “wishes to ensure that the existing mutual rights and obligations in its relationship with the UK will continue to apply” once Brexit is a reality. In the meantime no changes will take place for British citizens in Switzerland, or Swiss citizens in the UK, until the British exit has been negotiated with the EU.
Switzerland has a series of bilateral accords with the EU, regulating matters from trade barriers to government procurement and – more importantly for expats – the free movement of people. Switzerland’s Mind the Gap strategy states that these accords must be replaced by a new regime setting out the terms for bilateral Swiss-UK ties. If no agreement is reached on free movement, then British citizens in Switzerland will likely fall into the category of "third state nationals" and therefore require a work contract from a Swiss employer and work visa before entering the country.
What about the Swiss living in the UK?
The Swiss embassy in London clearly spells out the situation for its citizens. In a nutshell, Swiss nationals having lived continuously in the UK for at least five years have the right to reside there permanently.
Info for Swiss in Britain
The Swiss embassy in London says Swiss nationals are automatically granted the right to reside in the UK permanently if they have lived in the UK for at least five years. It says there is no requirement to register but recommends that they do so.
Swiss students studying at a UK university should watch developments closely over the next 24 months, since their status is regulated by the EU free movement of people accord.
Swiss authorities point out that Brexit should not affect the social security or pensions of Swiss nationals in the UK. However, the government states that it will take the interests of insured persons into account during negotiations between London and Bern.
So is there any reason to be worried?
In Geneva last June, Diane Abbott, the then-British Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, highlighted that the goalposts could move.
“One of the worrying things about Brexit is what will happen to people who are British nationals but now live in Europe,” she told swissinfo.ch at the time. “The question is will their rights be protected? Will they have access to healthcare? 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.”
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