AMSTERDAM (AP) — A group of British citizens who live in the Netherlands went to a Dutch court Wednesday in a bid to retain their EU citizenship rights after Britain completes its divorce from the bloc, but lawyers for the Dutch state dismissed their case as a legal fiction.
In a case that could have far-reaching consequences for some 1 million Britons currently living in European Union countries outside the United Kingdom, lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm launched summary proceedings before a judge at Amsterdam District Court, asking judge Floris Bakels to put so-called "prejudicial questions" about the status of U.K. nationals post-Brexit to the European Court of Justice, the Luxembourg-based court that rules on EU law.
According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, any person who is a citizen of an EU nation automatically is also an EU citizen. EU citizenship grants rights including to move and live freely within the bloc.
Brexit negotiators have made progress on the protection of rights of EU citizens living in Britain and U.K. citizens living on the continent, but no full agreement has been reached yet on the issue and lawyers for the plaintiffs said the progress so far left their fate up in the air.
British lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who is funding the case, said that if the Dutch judge puts questions to the Luxembourg court, "The answer the Court of Justice gives will be an answer that applies to U.K. passport holders wherever they live."
"I am profoundly concerned about what the loss of EU citizenship means for the million or so U.K. citizens who live and work in the EU," Maugham said before the hearing. "I am also profoundly concerned for the 64-odd million people living in the United Kingdom who, but for this litigation, will lose the ability to exercise EU citizenship rights in the future."
Alberdingk Thijm said that that according to EU law, citizens' rights are clear when a country joins the bloc but nobody knows what happens when a country decides, as Britain has done, to leave. He urged the Dutch judge to ask the court in Luxembourg to clarify the issue.
"Your honor, the fate of British citizens living in the Netherlands is in your hands," he said.
But urging the judge to reject the request, lawyer Georges Dictus, representing the Dutch state and Amsterdam municipality, said that once Brexit is finalized, EU treaties will no longer apply to British citizens and that any rights must be laid out in an agreement between Britain and the EU.
Another lawyer representing the Dutch state, Erik Pijnacker Hordijk, called the case "fictional, artificial," and said the plaintiffs were attempting to use the Amsterdam court as a stepping stone to get to the EU court in Luxembourg. He urged the judge to reject their request, saying it could potentially delay Brexit negotiations as a ruling from Luxembourg would likely take many months.
He added that the Britons were taking their case to the wrong court.
"If British citizens believe they have a legal right to a particular treatment post-Brexit, they should direct themselves to their own government of a British judge," he said.
A ruling is expected in three weeks' time.