The main challenge with trying to predict anything about the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU (now universally known as Brexit) is we simply do not know what kind of agreement the UK will have with the remaining EU members post-Brexit. Nevertheless it is possible to make some educated guesses given what we already know. Here, I will be considering the tax and social security implications of Brexit, in particular for UK expats in France or those owning second homes in France.
What is not likely to change
The first two years
Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that if the UK votes to leave the EU, the government will not be entering further negotiations in order to remain; Article 50 of the EU Treaty would be invoked: The British government would notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU and negotiations would begin to come to an agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the remaining members. If an agreement is reached before two years, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU from the date agreed. If an agreement is not reached within two years then the UK would only continue to be a member of the EU if the UK and the other EU members agree unanimously to extend the two-year limit.
Commentators have stated that two years is a short time when it comes to agreeing trade agreements: the trade agreement between the EU and Canada began in 2009, concluded in 2014 and it may come into effect this year.
The UK could therefore cease to be a member of the EU within the next two years, but it should not come as a big surprise if it remains in the EU for several more years.
Taxes (except VAT)
Tax laws are generally determined by the individual member states and as long as they do not contravene the overriding EU principles such as freedom of movement of people and goods, they are not usually affected by the EU, with the notable exception of VAT (see below).
National tax laws can be overridden by double tax agreements. Both France and the UK have double tax agreements with many countries, including with each other covering income and capital gains tax. However these double tax agreements do not depend on EU membership.
We should not expect any real impact on income and capital gains tax as a direct result of Brexit. Other taxes which should not be affected as a direct result of Brexit include: inheritance tax, local property taxes (taxe d’habitation, taxe foncière) and stamp duty on property purchases.
VAT for EU members is essentially an EU tax. Although it is collected by the individual member states, the rules governing VAT are determined at EU level.
If the UK left the EU, we can assume it would no longer be bound by the EU VAT rules. Subject to whatever agreement is concluded upon exit, the goods and services provided by the UK to the remaining EU members would be classed as exports. This may mean UK exporters would have to pay import VAT when exporting to the EU. On the flip side UK tourists visiting the EU may be able to reclaim VAT they pay on goods purchased in the EU; although import VAT may be due in the UK if they bring those goods back to the UK.
For private individuals VAT is usually just a hidden cost of goods they purchase and they don’t have to worry about the associated paperwork. It is businesses that will bear the brunt of the potential VAT shake- up post Brexit.
Social security covers areas that are of importance to many people who will be affected by Brexit, such as access to health care and pensions. In my view, social security is the area where individuals are most likely to feel the effects of Brexit. Initially there will be uncertainty as individuals wait for what will replace the current system, followed by possible upheaval depending on what agreement is reached between UK and the remaining EU members.
We have heard that the UK may remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. If that is the case, it is not likely we will see major changes because the EU social security legislation extends to EEA countries. My feeling is that joining the EEA will not meet the demands of the ‘Leave’ campaigners given that this solution does not really address some of their gripe with EU membership such as freedom of movement of people, access to social security benefits and contributing money to the EU.
We need to seriously consider that the UK’s social security relationship with the remaining EU members could resemble what is in place with other nations. Whilst I would not expect there to be visa requirements for holiday visits, we should prepare for the following scenarios:
- Those currently working in France may have to apply for work permits in order to remain in France;
- It may not be so easy to retire to France in future and current retirees may not be able to remain in France indefinitely – they may have to demonstrate that they can support themselves financially;
- Restrictions to access to the French state health care system;
- Under current EU rules, periods of work abroad in other EU countries are taken into account when determining eligibility for state pension – this may end.
The reality is that British people living in France will most likely face a period of uncertainty as regards their status and rights which they currently enjoy automatically by virtue of UK’s EU membership. In order to retain some of these rights, those who have been living in France long-term (over five years) and who wish to continue living in France may want to consider applying for permanent residence or French citizenship.