Days after a “mutant” coronavirus strain ruined the Christmas plans of holidaymakers on both sides of the English Channel, Brexit red tape and confusion has raised hurdles for Britons attempting to return to their homes in several European countries.
Over the weekend, several Britons expressed their dismay on social media after they were barred from boarding flights bound for EU countries they live in. Others have complained of difficulties accessing social benefits to which they are entitled.
Most complaints involved flights to Spain, home to the largest number of registered Britons in Europe, though the Spanish authorities claimed that the issue had been resolved by mid-Sunday.
British in Europe, an advocacy group representing Britons in the EU, said similar issues had arisen in Italy, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. It spoke of “travel chaos for UK residents in the EU trying to return home”, and of violations of the Withdrawal Agreement guaranteeing the rights of British residents in the EU.
“Britons around the EU have encountered difficulties, with people barred from flights or having their passports stamped, even though they possess valid UK passports, EU residence documentation and PCR tests,” the group wrote in a statement on Sunday.
The chaos comes amid stringent travel restrictions due to a coronavirus variant that has been blamed for faster contagion in the UK. It has also highlighted the bureaucratic complexities caused by Britain’s departure from the EU, compounding the frustrations of expatriates directly affected by the results of a referendum many were unable to take part in.
Lost in translation
“The combination of the post-Brexit transition expiring, the new coronavirus strain and the end of the public holidays has created a perfect storm,” said Matt Bristow, a spokesman for British in Germany.
Following the discovery of the coronavirus variant in the UK, many European nations have banned travel from the British isles except for their own nationals and UK citizens with residency rights.
On Sunday, Dutch border police reported that several British travellers had been refused entry after failing to provide an “urgent reason” to travel to the Netherlands. “They all had a negative PCR test, but had forgotten the basic rule, that they need to have an urgent reason to come, such as work or serious family issues,” a police spokesman told local broadcaster NOS.
But Britons who reside in EU countries have faced similar obstacles amid confusion over the paperwork required to prove their residence.
In one such case, Britons attempting to board Lufthansa flights bound for Germany were mistakenly told they must hold permanent residence to travel, according to the German branch of British in Europe.
According to Bristow, the erroneous call stemmed from confusion among German officials and airline staff regarding which rules apply to British nationals after Brexit, coupled with certain German nuances being lost in translation.
He pointed to other difficulties experienced by some Britons in Germany since the start of January, including bureaucratic obstacles to accessing unemployment or childcare benefits.
Bristow also noted discrepancies between European Council guidelines and some national regulations, citing the case of a British national who was barred from making a stopover at Munich airport en route to his home in Austria. He added: “Borders that had long been invisible to Europeans are in fact still there for some, as Britons are now discovering.”
ID card backlog
Confusion over paperwork and terminology also caused the disruption in travel to Spain, where a new system to register foreign residents is suffering a backlog due to the high number of requests.
Madrid announced last year that British nationals resident in Spain would be given a photo ID to replace the current residency papers carried by EU nationals. Tens of thousands have applied for the card, but many are waiting to receive them due to demand on the system.
In the meantime, the British and Spanish governments have said that both the old Foreign National Identification (NIE) document and the new Foreign ID Card (TIE) are valid for travel.
Despite this, several Britons residing in Spain were prevented from boarding Iberia and British Airways flights to Barcelona and Madrid after the airlines claimed their papers were no longer valid.
Photographer Max Duncan, one of several travellers who was turned away at Heathrow Airport on Saturday, tweeted that British expats were “distressed as (they) can’t fly home”, having been told their residence certificates no longer sufficed
Iberia acknowledged late on Sunday that a communication from Spain’s border police on January 1 had created “some confusion” and that it was later clarified.
Spain’s Foreign Ministry spoke of “an isolated communication problem with some airlines that affected a very small number of travellers”, assuring that air traffic between the UK and Spain was proceeding “with normality”.
Some travellers who did make it through check-in were quick to flag another issue, noting that their passports were stamped upon entering the EU – in breach of the Withdrawal Agreement provisions.
In a written exchange with FRANCE 24, Kalba Meadows, a co-founder of France Rights, the French arm of British in Europe, said, “It does seem that the passports of UK nationals returning to France are being routinely stamped, at many [if not all] entry points.”
She added: “This may lead to issues further down the line as entering France with a passport stamp can mean that one has entered as a visitor not a resident, which sets the clock ticking for the maximum period of 90 out of every 180 days that a third-country national can stay in the Schengen area.”
Meadows said her association had raised the issue with the British embassy in Paris, noting that the difficulties experienced by many travellers had been compounded by skeleton staffing at UK embassies during the holiday season. France Rights has also posted detailed instructions for Britons in France, stressing that their passports should not be stamped if they are resident in France, have applied for residency, or can prove they lived in France before the Brexit transition ended on December 31.
Passport stamps have also been reported at Germany’s main airports, adding to the anxiety felt by British residents already fearful of the consequences of Brexit, said Bristow.
“People are anxious about running into problems later on, about losing certain benefits and rights,” he said. “They have all the right documents, but there’s a fear the message isn’t getting through to officials at all government levels.”
Clarissa Killwick, who co-runs the “Beyond Brexit – UK Citizens in Italy” facebook page, reported similar disquiet among Britons in Italy. She cited media reports of at least one British national, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, being barred from a Ryanair flight to Pisa because she could only produce a paper residency document instead of a photo card.
“The thing is, we are in entirely new territory as four-day-old third-country nationals, which is making everyone feel very jittery,” Killwick said. “That, combined with the twists and turns of the pandemic, is sending people’s stress levels through the roof.”