'I don't think we are a priority': Britons in Belgium facing citizenship hurdles

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On paper, Dudley Curtis ticks all the boxes for Belgian nationality: a fluent French speaker, the British national has lived in Brussels for 13 years and never been out of work. Yet a one-week gap between jobs was enough for authorities to reject his application for Belgian citizenship.

The decision shocked Curtis, who moved to Brussels in 2004 with his Belgian wife. “I have never claimed unemployment benefits or been out of work, so it seemed an unfair or a very a harsh interpretation of the rules,” he said. “I have been paying Belgian taxes since 2004. I have only ever worked for organisations registered in Belgium.”

Citizens’ rights are a top priority at the Brexit negotiations, which resumed in Brussels this week. Since the UK’s vote to leave the EU, British residents in Belgium have flocked to town halls to file applications for citizenship. In 2016, 506 British people acquired Belgian nationality, almost four times more than the previous year.

Many have found the process more arduous than they anticipated. Applicants must have lived and worked in Belgium for five years and speak one of three official languages: French, Dutch or German. For those unable to meet the work requirements, there are integration courses and language tests.

Curtis applied for Belgian nationality during the referendum campaign. After the Brexit vote he was even more convinced a passport was the best way to secure the future for him and his Belgian-British family.

Without Belgian citizenship, he could be “locked into Belgium”, unable to consider jobs in other EU countries. Returning to the UK is also a risk, because of uncertainty over his wife’s status. “This whole thing has thrown up a lot of questions and there is no one giving any answers,” he said.

Officials say Curtis could get round the requirement of an unbroken five-year work record by taking a 400-hour integration course during the working week. “The Belgian nationality code … leaves very little room for interpretation,” a spokeswoman at his commune of Anderlecht said.

“For a working person that is not feasible,” Curtis said, adding that he already feels “pretty well integrated” in Belgium. His two children were born in Belgian hospitals and attend local schools.

Curtis reserves most of his criticism for Theresa May and senior British ministers who “started the article 50 process without assessing all the outcomes”.

“The focus seems to have been on the status of EU nationals in the UK,” he said. “You have the feeling that: you left the UK, you are on your own. I don’t think we are the number one priority.”

Christine Sullivan, an attorney in Brussels, said the Curtis case did not surprise her.

“[Working] gaps of even a day can be enough to derail an application,” she said. “With the biggest respect towards the Belgian authorities, the interpretation of the requirement of economic integration is not always in line with legislative precedent or European law.”

Uzma Lodhi, 34, who works at the British Chamber of Commerce, has lived in Brussels for 11 years, and has had reassuring signals her application will be granted, though there was one hitch.

“My ID card said I was born in London, but my birth certificate said I was born in Edmonton [north London] and they made a big fuss about that, saying that it won’t be accepted,” she said. In the end, the British embassy supplied an official document confirming that Edmonton was in London.

Counter-intuitively, British EU officials face the biggest problems in becoming Belgian. This is a small group compared with the 25,000 Britons in Belgium: only about 1,280 British nationals work for the EU’s three main institutions, the European commission, council and parliament. As officials, they are entitled to live in Belgium under a diplomatic protocol card granted by the Belgian foreign ministry, in place of Belgian ID papers.

But this diplomatic perk has turned into a big headache. The Belgian government has decided the EU protocol card is not valid for citizenship applications. Many fear their British nationality could cost them their jobs after Brexit.

So far, EU authorities have not made any public statement to challenge the Belgian government. Instead hopes are being pinned on the courts, after a British MEP’s assistant took on the Belgian state and won.

Laura Rayner, a 33-year-old assistant to a Scottish MEP, who moved to Brussels in 2009, challenged a decision by Flemish authorities to reject her citizenship application.

She began her quest for Belgian citizenship at the doors of Leuvan town hall at 8.45am on Friday 24 June, 15 minutes before it opened. It was the first day of her maternity leave and she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. She felt she had no time to lose. A few hours earlier, she had woken to the referendum result.

She was warned that morning the protocol card would not be accepted as proof of five years’ residence. When the expected rejection letter dropped though her letterbox six months later, she decided to go to court. Long nights spent researching the finer points of Belgian and European citizenship law resulted in a legal ruling that the EU card could be accepted as proof of residence.

A spokeswoman at the Belgian ministry of justice said EU officials had the option of acquiring a Belgian ID card. Applying for a Belgian ID card was a sign of the “wish to become completely rooted” in Belgium, she said.

The Rayner case came from a lower court and does not set a precedent, but since the verdict, the assistant has been flooded by requests from EU officials.

Now she feels hugely relieved. “Why should I be in a worse position because I am a European official,” she said. “How is that anything other than discrimination?”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 11th October 2017 05.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010