As Brexit Talks Stall, The Hunt Is On For European Passports

Millions of British citizens don't want to give up being European.

As Brexit Talks Stall, The Hunt Is On For European Passports
Florentin Collomp

It was supposed to be the top priority of Brexit negotiations, the easiest issue to deal with given the goodwill for it declared on both sides. And yet, London and Brussels can't reach an agreement on the fate of the 3.2 million European citizens residing in the United Kingdom and of the 1.2 million British citizens living in Europe. While the European Union has devoted much attention to their citizens in the UK, British citizens in Europe feel their government has forgotten them.

Our life is on hold

"We're being completely ignored," laments Kathryn Dobson, who lives in France's western region Poitou-Charentes, where she publishes Living, a magazine for British expats in France. Dobson's family left Britain 15 years ago. She's now worried about the fate of her magazine as well as her future and that of her three daughters, aged 15 to 20.

"Our life is on hold," she says. "Our government hasn't taken into account the complexity of our situation."

One of her daughters, Emily, 18, a British citizen who grew up in France, is spending the second year of her management studies degree in the Netherlands as part of the Erasmus exchange program. As a citizen of a former member of the EU, she benefited from a special tuition fee and a grant form the French government. But nothing guarantees that her rights will be maintained after Brexit. In the meantime, she's initiated a procedure to obtain French citizenship and her mother is considering doing the same.

"Banksy does Brexit" — Photo: Duncan Hull/Flickr

The situation certainly remains murky. The European bloc's proposals cast doubt on the ability of British citizens to move freely on the continent. They could end up under "house arrest" in the country they are residing in when Brexit is applied, unable to travel elsewhere in Europe.

"If you live in Luxembourg and work in Brussels like I do, this is catastrophic," says Fiona Godfrey, a public health consultant and founder of the association British Immigrants Living in Luxembourg (Brill). She wants to believe that there's still hope for a favorable solution by the end of the next round of British-EU negotiations in late August.

Not all British expats are waiting. Some have already started to seek European citizenship.

60% of British citizens would like to be European after Brexit.

According to a survey conducted by Brill, 70% of British nationals living in Luxembourg are doing just that. But they can only do so if they've been residing in the country for at least five years and if they pass the test for local language Luxembourgish.

This option doesn't exist in nine European countries that don't authorize dual citizenship. In the union's remaining nations, "the criteria vary from country to country, and even, from region to region, like in Germany for example," explains Daniel Tetlow, vice-president of the Berlin-based association British in Europe. The organization already boasts 35,000 members and adds 50 to 100 new ones every day. "It's the first time that Brits in Europe have had to organize. There's a lot that needs to be done to fight against the lack of understanding regarding our status, even among British politicians."

A growing number of British nationals no longer believe in the promises from London and Brussels that assure them that nobody is going to be deported. They now believe that any agreement to safeguard their status depends on Brexit negotiations on finance, trade, and the like. There are no guarantees these talks will be successful. This attitude explains why British nationals are now rushing to obtain their European passports. According to a study by the London School of Economics, 60% of these citizens would like to be European after Brexit. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

Even those nationals who live in Britain are said to be looking for ways to obtain a second passport. So they've started to explore their family trees. Some 10% of British citizens can become Irish nationals if they have at least one grandparent from Ireland. As a result, the demand for Irish passports in the UK has doubled since the British referendum to leave Europe.

There are other possibilities. Jews of German origin are trying to obtain German nationality. Others are looking into Portugal and Lithuania — countries that offer similar naturalization mechanisms. For a part of the British population disgusted by Brexit, it's about having a way out of the mess.

"I know more Brits who've left the UK since the referendum than Brits who've returned," Tetlow says.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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