Where does a Brexit leave Brits in Switzerland?
British voters have opted to leave the European Union in one of the most momentous referendums the country has ever seen. What does that mean for Brits abroad?
As of November 2014 there were 41,577 British citizens in Switzerland (out of some 1.3 million in Europe). At this stage there are far more questions than answers for how Thursday’s vote will affect these people.
For the time being – nothing will change. The UK has two years to figure out the terms and conditions of how it will leave the European Union.
What does it mean for British citizens currently living in Switzerland?
The Swiss government said in information published onlineExternal link, that “it is in the interests of the UK and Switzerland to find a workable solution for their citizens. To this end, the cabinet will contact the British government in the near future”. They stressed that no changes will take place for British citizens in Switzerland, or Swiss citizens in the UK, until the British exit strategy has been negotiated with the EU.
At a British Swiss Chamber of Commerce event in Geneva in early June, swissinfo.ch put a number of questions to key politicians on both sides of the leave-remain divide.
For Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, British people currently living in Switzerland or in EU countries should have no cause for concern. “The reason I can say that with such confidence is because of the Vienna Convention, a well-established principle which means the EU would have to honour where people are currently resident. And also, interestingly, forcing people back to their countries would go against the principles of the European Union’s very own Charter of Fundamental Rights.”
Graham Brady, a Conservative parliamentarian and Brexit supporter, agreed, saying: “There are very longstanding international treaties which protect people in those situations. There’s a presumption that people who are settled in a country will have a right to continue working there if there is a political change or change of sovereignty.”
So is there any reason to be worried?
In Geneva in June, Diane Abbott, the British Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, highlighted that the goalposts could move.
“One of the worrying things about Brexit is what will happen to people who are British nationals but now live in Europe,” she told swissinfo.ch. “The question is will their rights be protected? Will they have access to healthcare? You could end up with British people needing visas to enter individual countries. In terms of being able to get on a train in London and travel all around Europe, we could be going backwards not forwards.”
On June 1 the Spanish Prime Minister warned that British expats could forfeit their rights to live in Spain.
What about Brits who want to move to Switzerland?
Citizens of non-EU and non-European Free Trade Association countries (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) need to have a guaranteed work contract from an employer as well as the appropriate work visa before entering the non-EU Switzerland.
When Britain leaves the EU, Brits will find themselves in this group.
As a comparison, citizens from the EU and EFTA countries are generally allowed to come to non-EU Switzerland for three months while they look for work (this can be extended for another six months).
Could the EU hit back at students and scientists?
Switzerland was frozen out of EU research projects in 2014 after the Swiss people voted in favour of reintroducing quotas for EU citizens, violating the terms of the free movement of people accord. Could the same happen to the UK? Graham Brady, a Conservative parliamentarian, saw it as unlikely.
“We make one of the biggest contributions to the EU science budget! And of course the biggest scientific collaboration in the world is here in Switzerland: the Large Hadron Collider [at CERN]. So it really is a nonsense to think that the European Union can control all cooperation in scientific research. If it tried to do so, the EU would be the loser.”
Does the British embassy in Bern have any advice?
In a statement the embassy said: "The Prime Minister has said that there will be no immediate changes on the circumstances to British nationals living in European countries and European citizens living in Great Britain; this also applies to British people living in Switzerland and people from Switzerland living in the United Kingdom.”
They stressed the importance of the "existing bilateral relationship" and added they were looking forward to "new opportunities" between the two countries.
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