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Awareness of the fast approaching referendum on membership of the European Union is becoming increasingly pervasive to day to day life in the UK. From daily headlines, to In/Out posters starting to appear in our neighbours’ windows through to increasingly heated debate within friendship groups, families and in the workplace. Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of this debate remains on the free movement of people across the European Union.
Of course, awareness of the possible implications of a vote to leave the EU is likely most acute amongst those Europeans who have exercised that right of free movement and made the UK their home in the last few months, years or, indeed, decades. As immigration lawyers, we have been fielding questions on the likely impact of ‘Brexit’ for the last three years, since David Cameron first mooted the possibility of a referendum in a speech in January 2013. The Conservatives’ electoral win in May last year and subsequent realisation that the referendum was now a reality has heightened these concerns among our European neighbours.
We have seen a steady increase in the number of applications by Europeans for British Citizenship over the last 12 months. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is those who have been here longest that we are hearing from most. Those who have made the UK their home for a lengthy period of time are, understandably, very worried about losing their right to remain here.
It is likely that it was this rush to naturalise that led to a change in the regulations for EEA citizens in November 2015. As rights under European law are acquired automatically, EEA citizens have traditionally been able to naturalise as British automatically once they have spent six years in the UK and acquired permanent residence at least 12 months earlier. Permanent residence is acquired automatically after an EEA citizen has spent five years exercising treaty rights in the UK. It is possible to obtain confirmation that permanent residence has been acquired but not mandatory to do this. In November 2015, the regulations changed so that EEA nationals must apply for confirmation of permanent residence before they can naturalise. This means EEA nationals must make two separate applications and could be waiting up to 12 months to become British.
The additional administrative burden of double applications hasn’t thus far, deterred this growing number of Europeans eager for a British passport.
Although we don’t yet know for certain the impact of a potential British exit from the EU, we do think that transitional arrangements will be put in place to protect those who relocated to the UK under EU law. Such transitional arrangements will, of course, be subject to negotiation, but it seems unlikely that we would seek to eject those who are already here, and particularly those who have acquired permanent residence. Any such transitional arrangements would likely apply to British nationals (some 2 million of them) who are living in other European countries and their interests would surely be weighing heavily on the minds of British politicians negotiating our exit.
All that said, the UK has created an increasingly hostile environment for non-EEA national migrants and it is understandable that Brexit may therefore cause EEA nationals to worry. Our best advice to those who are concerned is to keep calm, seek confirmation of their current status and ensure they are in a position to secure that status either now or if needed following the referendum.
We will be following up with a blog on our top tips for EU nationals as part of our series on issues arising ahead of the referendum on 23rd June 2016.
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