Britons in Italy fight to retain their rights

British in Italy (BiI) mobilises to safeguard existing rights of Britons.

Thousands of Britons in Italy are worried as to how Brexit – Britain’s leaving the European Union (EU) – will affect their future.

Like the three million citizens from EU countries living in Britain – of whom some half a million are Italian – they risk losing the many rights they have enjoyed for years as EU citizens. These include not only residency but also the right to work, access to healthcare, recognition of professional qualifications, pension rights and other issues. Estimates of the number of British citizens in Italy maybe as many as 65,000 and many are now mobilising.

“Failure to settle this question before Britain leaves the EU could cause many cases of real hardship,” says Jeremy Morgan QC, spokesman for British in Italy (BiI), the main organisation campaigning to retain these rights. “For instance, pensioners who are sick may no longer qualify for help from the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (Italian national health service, Ed.) and those with pre-existing medical conditions may not be able to get health insurance. People could lose their livelihoods, or be forced to give up their jobs in order to retrain to qualify for the work they were already doing. And everyone would have to deal with the hassles that constantly face non-EU citizens (extracomunitari).”

Avoiding penalties

BiI aims to ensure that Brexit does not penalise either British or EU citizens, many of whom made the decision to move across the Channel on the reasonable assumption that these rights were permanent. It is working closely with British in Europe, a coalition of similar organisations in Spain, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium, with membership in excess of 30,000, as well as with the3million, the main EU group in the UK. Expat Citizens’ Rights in the EU (ECREU), a larger group founded in France and which claims members in 27 EU countries, also has supporters in Italy.

BiI was founded by three Britons living in Umbria and two in Rome, who were soon joined by several hundred others who contacted them via their email address britsinitaly@gmail.com, and Facebook. They have a newsletter, obtainable through the email address, and plan to have a website soon.

Appealing for rights

So far British in Europe and BiI have appealed to the UK government in an alternative white paper to guarantee the rights of the EU citizens in Britain and UK citizens in the EU.

Gareth Horsfall, an independent financial adviser in Rome and a member of the committee, has given evidence to the House of Commons committee on exiting the EU. BiI lobbied the UK parliament hard on the Brexit bill and was instrumental in the Lords passing an amendment to protect the rights of those who have moved to the UK, although that was later overturned in the Commons.

British in Italy (BiI) took part in the March for Europe in Rome on 25 March.
British in Italy (BiI) took part in the March for Europe in Rome on 25 March.

It has called on the Italian government to use its influence with EU institutions to ensure these rights are retained on both sides of the Channel and to deal with British citizens in Italy accordingly. In conjunction with the leader of the Partito Democratico group in the UK, it has also lobbied members of the Camera dei Deputati in Rome, who are very interested in the case and hope to form a committee, or commission an existing one, to study the problems Brexit may cause Italians in the UK and British citizens in Italy.

They have put their case and outlined their activities to officials at the British embassy in Rome, on the assumption that this will eventually reach the government in London which claims to be trying to find out – some might say belatedly – who British living in the EU actually are and learn their problems.

They took part in the March for Europe in Rome on 25 March during the 60th anniversary celebrations for the Rome treaties, which was not attended by the British.

This is how BiI puts its case for recognition of existing rights:

Residence. The criteria for the right of residence and for obtaining permanent residence should remain the same as before. No-one should be treated as those from outside the EU (extracomunitari) the day after Brexit.

The little-known requirement that students and people who are not working should have, or have had, private health insurance even in countries like the UK where there is a free national health service should be ignored.

Citizenship. It should continue to be awarded on the present criteria. In Italy, for example, UK citizens should still be able to apply for Italian citizenship after four years of residence (the period for EU citizens), not 10 years (the period for non-EU citizens).

Work. The right to work without visas, work permits or quotas should remain on both sides of the Channel. Workers should all continue to enjoy equal treatment with nationals of the state where they are living as regards conditions of employment, pay, social security, etc.

Business and professional qualifications. Freedom to establish a business should be retained on both sides and – equally important – so should the mutual recognition of professional and other qualifications which, among other things, is essential to the freedom to start a business.

Students. A number of issues relating to students need to be addressed if the cross-Channel benefits of schemes such as Erasmus+ are not to be lost to future generations. EU students have particularly benefited from being able to study English, the language of modern business, in its country of origin.

Pensioners and other economically inactive people. They should continue to have all the same rights as at present, including access to health care under the EU system and, in the case of UK pensioners in the EU, regular increases in the state pension to cover inflation. These rights risk being lost unless the UK can be made to agree to continue to pay for them. This affects not only UK citizens in the EU but EU citizens who earned their pensions working in the UK and then returned to live in their country of origin. Similar issues face other economically inactive people, such as mothers looking after children and the families of people in work. A major issue here is the continuation of the right of elderly parents to travel cross-Channel to visit and/or live with children established in another country.

None of these rights stands alone. They are inextricably linked. For example, a right of continued residence is of no use to a professional if the qualifications he or she needs to earn an income to maintain his or her family are no longer recognised. Nor is a right of residence meaningful for a pensioner who is no longer entitled to the state health system at an age when pre-existing conditions make it impracticable or unaffordable to buy private health insurance.”

British prime minister Theresa May.
British prime minister Theresa May.

So far British people living in Italy have been on something of an emotional rollercoaster as news from London, Brussels and elsewhere has alternately spread hope and fear. Theresa May, the British prime minister, while professing sympathy with all concerned, has steadfastly refused to give any guarantee of the rights of EU citizens in Britain, while Eastern European diplomats and politicians have warned they will oppose retaining rights for Britons in the EU unless she does. The House of Lords demanded that the rights of the three million be preserved in an amendment to the Brexit bill, only to have this thrown out by the House of Commons. One consolation is that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit, has said that the issue should have priority at the outset of the talks.

Patricia Clough

This article was published in the April 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine before Theresa May made her decision to call a snap election on 8 June.