Riigikogu act safeguards UK citizen rights in any Brexit scenario

A XIII Riigikogu sitting.
A XIII Riigikogu sitting. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Riigikogu passed an act on Thursday aimed at safeguarding the future of UK citizens resident in Estonia in the aftermath of Brexit, just ahead of its dissolution in advance of the Estonian general election.

The Act on Amendments to the Citizen of the European Union Act and Other Acts (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union) (781 SE), passed with 76 votes in favour on Thursday morning (51 votes at the 101-seat Riigikogu are required for an act to pass, regardless of how many MPs vote on a bill).

The act, which was proposed by the government, takes account of the lack of clarity on the basis the UK will be leaving the EU and so aims to cover both a no-deal agreement, and one which follows any amended withdrawal agreement.

According to a Riigikogu press release, the act aims to facilitate as smooth a transition as possible for UK citizens living in Estonia, and their families.

Withdrawal agreement scenario

The Act ensures conditions for living in Estonia, as laid out in the agreement, to UK citizens either resident in Estonia now, or arriving during the roughly two-year transition period, as well as their present and future family members.

EU law will continue to apply to the citizens of the UK through this transition period, and they will be able to continue living in Estonia on the basis of right of residence, without anything changing during that time.

UK citizens arriving in Estonia after April 2021, ie. after the transition period ends, would then fall within the scope of the Aliens Act 2009, under which they would be treated the same as other third country citizens and would have to apply for residence permits along the same lines.

No-deal scenario

In the event of the UK leaving the EU under a no-deal scenario, the Aliens Act 2009 will immediately apply to citizens of the UK and their family members living in Estonia. In other words, no transition period will apply.

Provisions of the Aliens Act 2009 would then either grant UK citizens a five-year temporary residence permit in Estonia, or a long-term residents' permit, depending on whether the individual is resident in Estonia on the basis of a temporary or permanent residency permit at the precise moment Brexit comes into effect, at present set to be 29 March 2019.

In other words, UK citizens will get the same permit as they already had at the time of Brexit (see below for procedures in issuing new permits).

Those UK citizens wanting to settle in Estonia after the Brexit date will be treated as third country citizens under the Aliens Act 2009, it is reported.

Common outcomes to both scenarios

Regardless of whether the UK leaves under no-deal or with a deal, Estonian ID cards already issued to UK citizens retain their validity, including the pertaining residency rights, until their current expiry date.

In the case of withdrawal with an agreement, the citizens of the UK will be issued residence cards from 2021, in the case of withdrawal without an agreement, from 1 April 2020, which means that UK citizens settling in Estonia in the meantime will be issued pure ID cards, and not residency permit cards, as identity documents.

Whilst the UK will sooner or later revert to third country status, either in 2019 or 2021, if it leaves the EU, its citizens in Estonia will be treated along the same lines of those from the US and Japan, meaning that the immigration quota will not apply. The immigration quota sets the level of individuals from third countries allowed to migrate into the country per year, usually at a little over 1,000 people, and invariably filled early on each year. It is separate from the EU's migration redistribution plan.

Regardless of whether UK withdrawal is on an agreement or no-deal basis, its citizens in Estonia should ensure their place of residence in Estonia has been entered into the Population Register. As at February 2019, 1,335 UK citizens are both registered by the place of residence and as holding a valid Estonian ID card. A reported 338 have permanent right of residence.

Prior to Brexit, UK citizens had been covered by the Citizen of the European Union Act 2006, which applies to all EU citizens, as well as those of the European Economic Area, and the Swiss Confederation. Estonia joined the EU in 2004.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May's draft Agreement on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union was rejected at the House of Commons on 15 January, by 432 to 202 votes. Last-minute talks ahead of 29 March have not yet yielded any concessions on the agreement from the EU; on Wednesday three Conservative MPs left the party over the perceived mishandling of the withdrawal by the prime minister, joining a centrist party which had already been set up by defecting members of the opposition Labour Party. Brexit had been one of the issues behind the eight Labour MPs leaving the party.

The XIII Riigikogu's last day of sessions was Thursday, 21 February, making the passing of the act one of its final significant actions. Advanced voting for the 3 March elections has already begun, and the XIV Riigikogu will convene some days after that.

European elections take place over two rounds in late May.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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