Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Top EU Court Gets First Case on Post-Brexit British Rights

Updated on
  • Main question is whether Brits in Europe would lose EU rights
  • Ruling could help thousands of Brits stuck in a legal limbo

Judges at the European Union’s top court will get their first chance to rule on the rights of British people who remain in the EU after Brexit.

A Dutch tribunal on Wednesday said it will refer questions about the EU citizenship status of Britons following Brexit to the European Court of Justice, in a case that could help settle the legal status of thousands whose future was plunged into doubt when the U.K. voted to leave.

The main question for the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice is whether “Britons’ EU citizenship would come to lapse should the EU and U.K. not decide on anything else in their negotiations,” the Amsterdam District Court said in a statement following its judgment.

“It’s merely the question whether Brexit automatically means that Britons in the EU would lose EU citizenship,” the court said.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has said the more than 3 million EU citizens in the U.K. would have their rights set in law and enforced by British courts. Still, the 1.5 million Britons living in Europe face being “landlocked” after Brexit because a preliminary deal in December doesn’t clarify rights such as whether they can move freely between EU countries after the U.K.’s departure from the bloc.

The British government said the intervention was unnecessary because earlier agreements with the EU to protect expats.

“We have secured a deal that will safeguard the rights of U.K. nationals living in the European Union, so that they can continue living their lives broadly as they do now,” a U.K. government spokesman said Wednesday.

‘Prominent Voice’

Lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who’s been actively working to get Brexit related cases in front of EU judges, said in a tweet that a victory at the top court “could lead not only to the retention of EU citizenship for U.K. residents living in the EU” but “it could lead to all born before Brexit -- even if living here in the U.K. -- retaining the boon of EU citizenship.”

The European Commission in Brussels declined to comment on whether this case could hold up any final decision on citizens’ rights.

The Dutch court asked the ECJ whether conditions or restrictions should be imposed on the maintenance of the rights and freedoms to be derived from EU citizenship, if the EU and U.K. fail to come to any agreement on this.

Citizen for Life

The case, brought on January 17 by Dutch lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm on behalf of five U.K. citizens living in the Netherlands, is seen as a bid for British citizens to retain their EU citizenship after the U.K.’s exit from the bloc is completed in 2019. Both sides were given one week to respond to the questions.

“Are you an EU citizen for life or can your citizenship be taken away from you? That is the fundamental question that will be put forward to the European Court,” Alberdingk Thijm said in emailed comments on the ruling.

A lawyer for the defendants in the case -- the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch state -- referred questions for comments to spokespeople at Amsterdam city hall and the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. Neither could immediately comment on the case.

“This is the most important case” the EU court “has ever heard on EU citizenship,” said Fiona Godfrey, deputy-chair of British in Europe, a lobby group.

She said it is “clear that the final text on citizens’ rights in the withdrawal agreement cannot now be finalized and agreed by the EU and the U.K.” until a final decision by the EU judges.

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