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Brexit bewilderment

THE TRANSITION period following the UK's exit from the EU has now finally ended, with a last-minute Draft EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement cobbled together with the minimum of Parliamentary scrutiny. We're still looking through this document of over 1200 pages, trying to work out what it means for our members in practice. There is much that still remains unclear.

EU flags

EU flags at a pro-EU rally in London, October 2019

The first time our members in the UK are likely to feel the effects of Brexit is when they go to the Post Office. You now need to fill in a Customs declaration form to send letters or parcels to the EU – see here.

Freedom of movement of UK nationals travelling and working in the EU and vice versa has now ended. EU Member States now have the option of requiring UK nationals to have a work permit for any length of stay. There are exceptions, such as attending conferences about journalism, or for travelling to promote yourself. For our guide to travel to the EU, including for work, and work permits, see here.

In the short term at least, travel for work to the EU is pretty much academic anyway. Nothing to do with Brexit, but most of the EU has banned or restricted arrivals from the UK due to a new and particularly infectious strain of covid identified in southern England.

Flights, ferry services and Eurostar departures are currently few and far between. Some EU Member States are only allowing their own nationals or permanent residents in from the UK, or other EU nationals. Some carriers won't let you board a ferry, flight or Eurostar to most EU destinations without evidence of a covid test - not just any test, but only the private, paid-for ones that they specify. And travel within the UK is largely restricted to that for work that cannot be done at home, and some other exceptions.

As restrictions may change at short - or no - notice, we haven't given any links to travel advice here. Consult the website of the airline, ferry company or train service you were planning on travelling on. EU Member States' embassies or foreign ministries will have English-language websites with advice on travel from the UK.

When travel to the EU becomes possible again, UK nationals no longer get free health insurance cover in the EU via the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). If you have one already, it's still valid. It will be replaced soon with a new UK Global Health Insurance Card soon, which will cover you for the EU but not for Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, details are here.

UK nationals travelling for work the EU now need to start thinking about health insurance. The Freelance is not qualified to recommend any, but notes that the International Federation of Journalists' insurance partner, Battleface, doesn't just cover hostile environments but also covers (more cheaply) EU destinations, and can arrange cover for as short a time as you need at very short notice.

EU nationals living in the UK can still get a UK-issued European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) which covers them throughout the European Economic Area: see here. (New applications have been partially rebranded as GHICs.)

Our EU-national members in the UK may suddenly find their now-unusual ability to keep travelling freely between the EU and the UK opens up new work opportunities, once travel becomes practical again.

Our many members who are EU nationals living in the UK by now should have got Settled Status, giving them the right to live and work in the UK now that we've Brexited. If you haven't applied for this, now that the threat of No Deal has receded you have until 30 June to do so. You need to prove you were resident in the UK before 31 December 2020.

Just before Christmas, the Department for Work and Pensions resumed the issuing of new National Insurance (NI) numbers for EU nationals resident in the UK who still needed to get one. This had been suspended due to covid, meaning that many recently arrived EU nationals couldn't get an NI number, which they needed to start looking for work. We're still trying to find out whether the latest national lockdown has disrupted this service again. Those EU nationals who haven't yet applied can apparently still get Pre-Settled Status (see below) even without an NI number.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK, our EU national members in the UK will now have to provide evidence (electronically) of their Settled Status to get jobs or to rent accommodation in the UK, but this requirement only comes into force on 30 June 2021. It is unlawful for employers and landlords to require evidence of Settled Status before that date. The Mayor of London's European Londoners' Hub is a good first stop for advice if you face this form of discrimination, as is the website of your embassy in the UK.

Many EU nationals who apply for EU Settled Status don't meet all its requirements. Usually this is because they haven't lived continuously in the UK long enough. They instead get the lower-status, temporary Pre-Settled Status. They progress to Settled Status when they've lived here for five years. Worryingly, the proportion of EU nationals granted Pre-Settled Status has been growing.

Until recently, those with Pre-settled Status couldn't get Universal Credit, on the grounds of their "residency" in the UK. This was in apparent contravention of the Withdrawal Agreement clauses on citizens' rights. A recent Appeal Court judgment ruled that deciding whether or not applicants got Universal Credit based on their Pre-settled Status amounted to discrimination, and confirmed that EU nationals with that status are entitled to that benefit after all.

Our members who have Pre-settled Status are warned, though, that any "lengthy absences" from the UK may affect their ability to go on to get the more secure Settled Status. Any absences from the UK of more than six months are likely to start the clock all over again in terms of being in the UK long enough to progress to Settled Status.

EU nationals with "Pre-Settled" who return to the UK after being gone for more than six months risk being trapped in Pre-Settled status permanently. Nor does enforced absence from the UK through covid-era travel bans seem to be taken into consideration by the Home Office as a permitted exception to this rule. For details, see here.

We have found nothing in the Agreement that addresses the issue of cross-border working within the EU by self-employed UK nationals resident in an EU Member State – see here for background. We've already heard of cases of self-employed UK nationals being told by clients they can't engage them any more for freelance work across EU national borders. It is possible that this issue may yet be resolved in various national or European courts.