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Brexit: The British Ambassador answers questions on citizens’ rights, including the M card
Since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU at the end of 2020, Britons face a raft of changes to their lives in Belgium. The British Ambassador to Belgium Martin Shearman (pictured below) explains how to navigate the M card process and protect rights.
British citizens need to apply for a new electronic residence card called the M card. Can the embassy explain the process as determined by the Withdrawal Agreement (WA)?
When you apply for the M card at your commune, you fill in an ‘Annexe 58’ form and are given a certificate of application called ‘Annexe 56’ that is valid for three months. This means that you have three months to provide the commune with all the necessary documents to complete your application. EU citizens also go through a similar process when they register at the commune and are given the ‘Annexe 8’ form; they have three months to complete the application so it’s not just for Brits applying for the M card. The commune will also extend the validity of the certificate of application if there is a delay beyond either party's control.
Should they contact their commune if they haven’t been notified?
If you were correctly registered at the commune, you should have received an official letter signed by the Asylum and Migration Minister Sammy Mahdi towards the end of December. If you didn't, and believe you should have, definitely get in touch with your commune to see what you need to do.
The M card is the residency permit that allows you to demonstrate your rights under the WA. The application window for the new M card opened on 1 January 2021, and you have until the end of this year, 31 December 2021, to apply. There has been a delay in the manufacture of the cards, but you are still able, and are encouraged, to submit an application at your commune, who will then contact you when the card is ready for collection.
What about my old residency card?
Keep it! It is so very important to keep your previous residence card (E/E+/F/F+) during the application process while you wait for your new M card to arrive, so don’t hand it back to officials at the commune until you have your new card in hand.
Are my rights protected during the application process?
Yes, and this includes if your status changes, for example if you become unemployed or decide to become a student. Just remember to always update your commune when any of your circumstances change, including your address.
Can I continue to travel during the application process?
Yes absolutely, Covid-19 permitting of course. If you travel, you should carry your previous residence card alongside your passport. The certificate of application (Annexe 56) is also valid proof of your right to residency in Belgium, as stated by the WA.
What official paperwork do you need to supply with the application?
This depends on your individual circumstances, but the vast majority of UK nationals who already have a Belgian residence card (E/E+/F/F+) only need to submit a recent criminal record extract when applying for the new M card. If you submit a Belgian extract, you can get this via your commune either online or by requesting it in person. For UK extracts, you can provide either a DBS (criminal record) check or an ACRO (Criminal Records Office) certificate – both are being accepted and you can get these online. Whichever you provide, it needs to be no older than six months.
What happens if you don’t have proof of registration from before the end of 2020?
If you arrived in Belgium before 31 December 2020 but didn’t manage to get your registration application to the commune before the end of the transition period, you will also need to provide documents under existing EU rules, such as proof of health insurance or proof of income/sufficient funds. These documents will depend on your personal circumstances, but do not need to be translated if they are in English, French, Dutch or German.
Is there a right to return linked to the M card?
Yes, under the WA you can leave your EU country of residence for up to six months without losing your residency rights. This authorised absence increases to five years if you are a permanent resident.
Some communes ask for additional documents or recommend an F card instead of an M card. Why is this?
Great question, it’s not an easy one as the advice will vary on a case-by-case basis depending on your individual circumstances. In terms of the F card, let me give an example of where this might apply. If you came to Belgium with your Belgian or EU spouse under EU family reunification rules, then you may not have been exercising Freedom of Movement rights in your own, independent, right. If you think back to your initial registration at the commune, you probably weren’t asked to provide things such as a proof of job contract, which is what is asked of EU nationals being assessed under Freedom of Movement criteria.
In this case, you are therefore eligible to apply for the F card which is for Third-Country Nationals who are family members of an EU national. However, you are also eligible to apply for the new M card in your own right, because you were legally resident in Belgium before 31 December 2020. Here, you would need to prove that you were exercising your Freedom of Movement rights, which is why your commune may ask you for additional documents. So while it may be administratively less burdensome to apply for the F card, you may decide that you prefer to be covered by the WA, in which case you would need to apply for the M card.
The main point here is that you should always be given the option – if you weren’t explained the different cards you are eligible for, I would definitely go back to your municipality for clarification or escalate it to the Office for Foreigners if you don’t feel like you were given the choice.
Can you request Belgian nationality with an M card, or an annexe 56 or 58?
We have heard from UK nationals that the M card is not listed in the Royal Decree as proof of lawful residence for the purposes of applying for nationality. We can’t advise on applications for Belgian nationality, but we are clarifying with the Office for Foreigners to see if they can provide us with any further information.
What is the need/point to change from a Special ID to an M Card?
HR teams in international organisations and EU institutions are best placed to provide advice on rights linked to special ID cards as these are based on protocol agreements between the Belgian MFA and the organisations themselves. With regards to moving to an M card, there is no need for special ID card holders to switch to the new M card; however, it is an option. The ability to do so at any point in the future may be beneficial to those who plan to stay in Belgium, for example, after their contract at the EU institution expires or they retire. However, this remains a personal decision.
Regarding health insurance, if UK nationals do not have a Belgian mutual fund, can they use the EHIC card system, intended for emergency treatment?
This will very much depend on your individual circumstances. If you are a resident in Belgium, you should not use an EHIC to access healthcare in Belgium. You should either access it through your affiliation to a mutuelle/ziekenfonds, or with a UK-issued S1 form, and we strongly advise any UK national resident in Belgium to start the process of regularising their healthcare cover. In the meantime, you can pay costs upfront and submit a claim to the mutuelle/ziekenfonds up to two years after the initial payment. EHICs do however remain valid for emergency treatment in the UK and other EU countries.
Do you have advice for dual nationals and UK nationals with Belgian residency about which ID to use when entering UK and returning to Belgium - some people have different names on these documents?
A Belgian residence card (E/E+/F/F+/M) is not an identity card, so you can’t use it by itself for travel. You should travel with both your Belgian residency card and your British passport, and the residency card (or certificate of application) will prove that you are a resident in Belgium. Dual nationals can choose which travel document to use while travelling, this is a personal decision. We would however recommend that identity cards/passports be updated so that you have the same name everywhere to avoid any administrative problems.
Although there is no double taxation in either UK or Belgium, what advice do you have for readers concerned their UK pension is subject to taxation in Belgium.
The agreement between Belgium and the UK on avoidance of double taxation isn’t affected by the UK's departure from the EU, existing arrangements continue to apply. In case of questions or issues, we would recommend you seek professional advice.
Do UK-based self-employed people with Belgian clients need a work permit?
This will also very much depend on individual circumstances, such as what sort of work is being carried out and whether Belgium considers it to be exempt from work permit requirements or not.
How is the embassy keeping British citizens updated about the Brexit changes?
We’ve had positive feedback despite the lockdown challenges, and are keen to keep up the effort to ensure that we are getting useful information out. We're continuing monthly Facebook Q&A sessions every first Wednesday of the month. We're also very aware that not necessarily everyone is present on social media, but many have an email address, which is why we thought of a newsletter. Alongside information on specific topics, such as residency and healthcare, we include the main questions from our Facebook drop-in sessions so that everyone can access the same information. The newsletter can also easily be printed for those who want to spread the word to family and friends. We are happy that nearly 300 people asked for the first newsletter, and sign-ups continue to go up. If you’d like to sign up, send us a blank email at email@example.com
Photos: Getty Images © Victor Metelskiy (main image); British Ambassador Martin Shearman; British Embassy outreach events