U.K. Faulted on Citizens' Rights in Pre-Brexit Court Rebuke

(Bloomberg) -- Britain can’t deny a Spanish woman who obtained a British passport the right to live with her Algerian husband in the U.K., the EU’s top court said in a case that could weigh into a key debate on citizens’ rights in the Brexit talks.

The U.K. isn’t allowed to strip the rights of EU citizens, including the freedom to live with their non-EU spouse, if the person moves there from another member state and acquires dual nationality, the Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice ruled in a binding decision on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s case is seen as key by those fighting to protect the rights of EU and U.K. citizens who have made the move across the English Channel and are now faced with uncertainty over their rights after the separation. It concerns a pre-Brexit situation where the U.K. is still a member of the 28-nation EU and whether citizens, who freely move around, can be deprived of their EU rights to live a normal family life when they take on the British nationality.

Citizens’ rights is one of three key divorce issues for the EU, together with the separation bill and the Irish border. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier last week raised the prospect of Brexit talks failing to reach a breakthrough by year-end. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s point person on the U.K. EU withdrawal plans wrote to Brexit Secretary David Davis on Tuesday urging the settlement of the citizens’ rights question.

‘Good News’

A group representing the rights of expat Britons said the decision “is very good news for all EU citizens in the U.K. and British in Europe who are applying for citizenship in their host countries but who feared losing essential family reunification rights as a result.”

“The ruling now forms part of the pre-Brexit case law that the U.K. and EU27 have agreed to apply and respect in the citizens’ rights chapter of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations,” Fiona Godfrey, deputy chairwoman of British in Europe, said in an interview. “This means that 3 million EU citizens in the U.K. and 1.2 million U.K. nationals in the EU27 will be able to rely on it for protection provided we get a deal on citizens’ rights.”

It’s not yet clear what the ruling will mean for the rights of those Brits who decide to move to the EU in a post-Brexit world, she said, but the line taken by the court “would suggest that the CJEU was conscious of the wider issues surrounding citizens’ rights and Brexit when drafting this judgment.”

The U.K.’s Home Office said in an emailed statement that it was “reviewing the judgment and carefully considering its impact.”

Tuesday’s case goes back to March 2016, when a U.K. court sought the EU judges’ guidance on whether Perla Nerea Garcia Ormazabal and her spouse benefit from the right to free movement and residence guaranteed under the bloc’s citizens’ rights law. The Home Office had decided that EU citizens who live in the U.K. and acquire dual British citizenship forfeit that right.

The case is: C-165/16, Toufik Lounes v. Secretary of State for the Home Department.

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