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Brits working in Brussels sue Commission over Brexit ‘discrimination’

LONDON — A group of British officials working for the EU in Brussels are suing the European Commission on discrimination grounds after bosses stopped covering their travel expenses home.

Under long-standing Commission rules, the executive reimburses the travel costs of all Brussels-based officials when they return to their home countries — but insists the offer only applies to staff from current EU member states.

As a consequence, after Britain left the EU last year, the Commission notified all staff members with solely British citizenship that they would no longer receive the flat-rate sum for traveling home.

A group of 11 Britons are now suing the Commission, arguing the EU’s approach is illegal. They say the change in their situations was not a consequence of their own decisions — unlike in cases where someone may give up their nationality voluntarily, such as through marriage.

The applicants, represented by lawyer Nathalie de Montigny, argue the Commission’s move is discriminatory on the basis of nationality, because it applies only to Commission staff from former EU countries. They also argue it lacks objective motivation, justification or proportionality, and that it breaches the Commission’s principle of compensation for the expatriation status of its staff.

“Officials with only U.K. citizenship are now subject to a very strict interpretation of the rules for civil servants working for the EU,” de Montigny said.

“Those entering the civil service now know what their rights are and will be — whereas those who were working for the EU at the time of Brexit could not have expected to lose the compensation for their expatriation that is still a reality.”

The Commission, the applicants said, should apply its staff regulations “with the flexibility promised by the European Union” and “in a way that is generous to United Kingdom nationals and consistent with other internal rules.”

About 1,000 of the EU’s 60,000 civil servants are British, figures released in January showed, with 538 of them employed directly by the Commission.

Following the 2016 Brexit referendum, some Britons working for the bloc were able to secure passports from other EU countries and so retain their existing status at work. But those who chose not to seek EU citizenship, or who were simply not eligible for a passport from another EU state, have been downgraded to the status of civil servants from third countries.

The Commission said it does not comment on pending cases before the EU jurisdiction, but a spokesperson noted that the executive has “constantly applied an interpretation of the Staff Regulations that is as wide as possible,” in line with the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).

Under a strict application of the staff rules, the Commission can ask officials to resign if they lose their EU citizenship. In the case of Brexit, however, it declined to apply such a rule to civil servants with British citizenship only.

“That said, the Commission cannot ignore the fact that the U.K. is a third country, which has been the case since the end of the transition period under the WA, and that this factor may have resulted in changes to the entitlements, including the travel allowance, paid to U.K. staff or staff changing their place of origin in the U.K.,” the EU spokesperson said.

The Commission must now make a submission to the Court of Justice of the EU, which is not expected to pass judgment before 2023.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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