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Brexit: High turnout for first info session in Brussels since UK exit from the EU
It was the first information session in Brussels since the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January, with the current transition period ending on 31 December, 2020. Staff from the City of Brussels commune joined British ambassador Martin Shearman and his colleagues in answering questions from the public.
Said ambassador Shearman: “The overall message is one I hope of reassurance that under the withdrawal agreement, the key rights of residents to continue living, working and accessing healthcare and social security are protected.”
He outlined the following guaranteed rights for Britons legally resident in Belgium: the right to work, including self-employment; frontier working if crossing the border on a regular basis; access to healthcare; coordination of pension rights and social security; child and disabled benefits; access for children to education; the right to family reunification; and no legal discrimination on basis of nationality.
Among the issues not covered by the withdrawal agreement and yet to be established during the transition period, said Shearman, were free movement in the EU and the provision of services across EU borders.
Concerning voting rights, British citizens who were residents for more than five years in Belgium, retained the right to vote in local Belgian elections, he added.
Looking ahead to future travel arrangement, UK nationals resident in Belgium would be advised to carry both their Belgian residency cards as well as UK passport when entering Belgium. The UK was expected to treat EU citizens as non-visa nationals who could visit the UK for up to six months and use e-gates with biometric passports, said the ambassador.
For Britons returning to the UK with family members who were non-UK nationals, EU nationals would have the right to apply for residency and settlement with protected rights up until 29 March, 2022. After then, it was understood that EU nationals with British family members would be treated similarly to citizens arriving in the UK from other parts of the world.
On the question of higher education, British citizens resident in Europe were entitled to send their children to university in the UK with the home fee status protected for seven years following the transition period ending 31 December, 2020. After that, they would have to pay overseas fees.
British citizens with Belgian resident cards – whether E+ or not – would be invited by their municipalities to get new cards, although it was difficult to say when they would be contacted, “but it’s a categoric commitment”, said Shearman, “and there is a grace period for applying for the new card until the end of June 2021”.
The embassy’s advice to Britons in Belgium was to ensure that their registration details were up to date before the end of the year and to be registered with a ‘mutuelle’ health insurance. Frontier workers coming into Belgium to work needed to register their work patterns in the municipality where they worked.
And Belgian authorities recommended Britons driving in Belgium with a UK licence to exchange it for a Belgian one this year. While still possible to do it next year, they think it would be quicker to do it during the transition period, said the embassy.
An additional suggestion: “Take advantage of the transition period and register your professional qualifications in case they are needed outside Belgium.”
The ambassador, embassy staff and city of Brussels representatives then answered questions from the audience before responding to individual queries at the end of the evening.
Will the UK be uprating pensions for people living in Belgium? We’ve had conflicting advice.
British embassy: We can confirm that pensions will be uprated.
Is it still possible to apply for Belgian nationality, even after the transition period?
British embassy: The procedure remains unchanged. The new ID card would still be valid for applying for Belgian nationality.
What is the situation for holders of special ID cards?
British embassy: For UK nationals with special ID cards (those who work for a European or international organisation, such as the European Commission, Nato, or an NGO), the position is still not clear, but you can trade it for a normal registration card. We recommend you discuss this with your employer.
Can you accrue rights on a special ID card towards qualifying for nationality?
British embassy: Time spent on a special ID card can count towards residency requirements, but not for nationality purposes. We are not aware that these rules have changes.
City of Brussels: We recommend getting an E or F card as this will give you more rights than a special card.
And if your spouse has another EU nationality with an E card?
British embassy: That depends on if you prefer to have a residency card in your own right or whether you choose to be considered as a third country spouse of an EU national? Your rights will differ. It may be worth contacting the Brussels commissioner for information.
City of Brussels: If UK nationals are spouses of EU nationals they may be able to supplement their rights, it certainly won’t prejudice their rights.
I’ve heard about there already being custom delays at airports
British embassy: Travel should still be the same until the end of the year. If people have any difficulty, they should see our website.
What is the situation if you have dual nationality: UK and non-Belgian EU nationality?
City of Brussels: When you have two, you can choose and ask to change it in the national register. If switching nationality, you can continue to accumulate years to qualify for permanent residency.
British embassy: Rights under the withdrawal agreement and those of EU citizens will overlap and complement each other.
Will it be possible to continue using a Belgian driving licence in the UK?
British embassy: The UK has made a unilateral offer to allow EU licence holders to drive in the UK when visiting, without an international driving permit. It’s fine if you’re just visiting, but if you move back to the UK, you will have to change your licence.
My Belgian wife and I travel frequently between Belgium and the UK. What are the rules on this?
British embassy: You can make short-term visits of up to six months. EU nationals can visit without a visa. If moving back permanently then there are issues around settlement rights for your EU partner after 29 March, 2022.
I work on temporary contracts and in-between I’m a jobseeker. Can that continue?
British embassy: You can still look for jobs and have protected rights. You can be a job seeker for up a year. Discuss with the Belgian authorities if you need to be signed up at a jobseeker office. You can look for work and you can swap between categories, you will still be covered.
Can I still buy property in Belgium?
British embassy: This is part of the protected rights. Britons will be treated on an equal basis to state nationals.
What other key aspects have yet to be negotiated?
British embassy: There’s a lot to negotiate, starting next week. Issues about people who are not protected and their access to social security and healthcare. There are issues around services across borders, travelling with pets. There’s a lot to do, but residency rights are protected.
I’m registered as self-employed and have been in Belgium less than five years. I’m often away on projects for more than six months. What should I do?
British embassy: You need to be resident in Belgium for six months in the year, but there are exceptions, such as need for healthcare abroad, military service… It’s best to discuss with your commune.
I’m a British national with kids at university. Can they benefit from the Erasmus programme?
British embassy: We don’t know after this year. The government will have to see if it is advantageous to be part of the system and the EU would have to be willing for us to participate.
I have an E-card. Are the conditions for qualifying for nationality the same if I stay for another three years?
British embassy: You can still accumulate on the new residency card and the number of years will count.
British Embassy: Useful websites:
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