Brexit and Social Security for British People Living in the EU

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Man and woman on a beach holding hands
Man and woman on a beach holding hands, Photo by Sam Williams on Unsplash

By Dr Kelly Hall, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

After years of uncertainty, the UK has now left the EU. So what does this mean for more than a million British people living in other European countries?

The UK is now considered a ‘third country’ to the EU and thus moving to Europe has become more complicated since the 1st January 2021. Both new and existing migrants are only just beginning to understand and adapt to new post-Brexit rules. The Withdrawal Agreement and Trade Agreement set out the rights and entitlements of EU migrants but the result is that the rights of those who moved before and after the 31st December 2020 are different.

Will anything change for British migrants already living in the EU?

For British nationals who became resident in another EU country by the end of 2020, their existing rights to live, work and study in that country are set to continue under the Withdrawal Agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement also guarantees continued access to social security for EU migrants in the country they are resident, including (but not limited to) healthcare, pensions, child benefits and disability benefits. In essence, these migrants will have broadly the same rights as they had before Brexit.

What happens when a British national wants to move to Europe from now onwards?

The Trade Agreement that began on the 1st January 2021 has secured many social security rights going forward. For British pensioners, this includes access to the state pension (including any annual increments) and reciprocal healthcare in other EU countries. However, pensioners resident in an EU country will no longer be entitled to free routine/non-emergency NHS treatment in the UK (whilst British pensioners who were resident in another EU country before the 31st December can continue to access the NHS). Some other welfare benefits will no longer be exportable for pensioners, including the Winter Fuel Payment (although this has not been exportable to ‘warmer’ countries like Spain since 2015). For younger families, child benefits will no longer be exportable. One other key difference is the withdrawal of ‘freedom of movement’ principles, meaning that a British person will need to apply for a visa and meet certain conditions (including minimum income requirements) if they want to move to an EU country.

What about second homeowners?

One group of British nationals likely to affected by Brexit are second home owners. Until 31st December 2020, the hundreds of thousands of British people who own second homes in another EU country were able to come and go as they chose; but this has now changed. A typical example is a British retiree who spent the winter at their second home in Spain and the summer in the UK – the so called ‘swallows’. However, new post-Brexit rules mean that they can only spend 90 out of every 180 days in Spain, leaving them with two options going forward. One, to move permanently to their second home and become a Spanish resident (as long as they meet the new visa conditions). Two, to remain resident in the UK but abide by the new rules. These rules would mean that they could for example, spend October to December in Spain, but would have to return to the UK for 90 days from January to March. They would not even have the option to holiday in another EU country because the 90-day rule applies across all EU countries collectively.

So, in summary, the days of unrestricted mobility to other EU countries have ended. Whilst those who already live in another member state will have their existing rights protected, those rights only apply in that country. Those looking to move to or buy second homes in Europe will be subject to greater restrictions going forward. With the Covid-19 pandemic also severely impacting travel, we may see some significant changes in migration patterns and population dynamics in Europe over the coming years.

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