British expats will be able to fight for their EU citizenship at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after winning a landmark legal ruling.
It comes after five expats in the Netherlands asked a court in Amsterdam to refer their case to the ECJ last month.
The group argued their existing rights could not be taken away because of a referendum in the UK.
The judge ruled yesterday that the case could be referred.
A spokesman for Brexpats – Hear Our Voice, which led the challenge, said: “We are grateful to the court and obviously delighted with the decision. However, this is just the first step in clarifying what Brexit could mean for our EU citizenship.
“This case has always been about seeking clarification, not only for the 46,000 Brits living in the Netherlands but also for all the 1.2 million Brits living in other EU countries.
“As has been demonstrated in recent days, what Brexit means is still extremely unclear. You cannot play with the lives of 1.2 million people as if they are pieces on a chessboard.”
The five Britons and the Commercial Anglo Dutch Society were the named claimants in the case that was funded and supported by Jolyon Maugham, the QC behind a series of Brexit legal challenges in Britain.
The judge will produce two draft questions before the ECJ within the next two weeks.
The first question asks the ECJ panel of judges to determine whether Brexit means British nationals will automatically lose their EU citizenship and all the rights that flow from that, including freedom of movement.
If the answer to that question is no, then the ECJ judges are asked to determine what, if any, conditions or limitations should apply to the maintenance of those rights once Britain leaves the EU.
Floris Bakels, a judge at Amsterdam district court, said according to the law, rights of minorities should not be prejudiced by a referendum.
“The essence of a democratic constitutional state is that the rights and interests of minorities are protected as much as possible,” he added.
A lawyer for the claimants Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm argued the Lisbon treaty gives British expats the right to retain EU citizenship because it states in article 20 that ‘citizenship of the union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship’.
Thijm said: “This is a great victory because the questions are very important questions about the interpretation of law around EU citizenship. The judge is a former supreme court judge, so the arguments about the Lisbon treaty were followed by the judge. We need brave judges who are confident to refer questions like this to the ECJ.”
Maugham said that the outcome of the case would be ‘profoundly important’ for British people living in the EU.
Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, said: “The question regarding our EU citizenship rights has kept many Brits awake at night. The purpose of the case was to determine whether EU citizenship stands alone or is tied inextricably to EU membership. Would we automatically lose our EU citizenship rights if the UK was no longer a member state? Our hope was a referral to the ECJ, so this is a great result.”