Even as we had all but turned cartwheels across the Piazza del Comune, we had known that it was a hollow victory. We had just come bowling down the echo-ey marble staircase of the town hall, giddy with delight and relief at having just picked up the certificates of registration confirming that we had at last been granted residency. It had taken weeks of shuttling back and forth between various drab municipal offices, repeatedly providing the same information, and repeatedly being given either conflicting, insufficient or inaccurate information, but we had finally got there and the sense of achievement was immense. However, this was back in July 2018 when ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was in full swing so we already knew that this would not be the end of the road. We had been granted residency by virtue of our citizenship of a European Union member state, meaning that once Brexit had been completed, our continued residency would become dependent on an entirely different set of rules. The only thing was, no one had any idea what they would be or how they would work. In practice, therefore, we had really only moved from one state of limbo to another.
And it was a state of limbo that was to persist for a further two years while the Withdrawal Agreement was thrashed out and ‘British in Europe’, an EU-wide group of expat campaigners living in the remaining 27 member states, lobbied ministers in London, in Brussels and in their respective national capitals in a monumental effort to preserve as many pre-Brexit rights as possible for Brits living and working in EU countries. ‘Brexit Day’ came and went with no significant progress, and even as the months ticked by in the year-long transition period and (for me) the constant background hum of anxiety grew louder by the day, it still remained unclear exactly what our rights would be and what we would need to do to secure them. In fact, it was with barely one hundred days left until UK citizens would lose their EU citizenship and all the benefits it bestowed that things became somewhat clearer for most Brits in Italy. Thankfully, the Italian government had decided to adopt a declaratory procedure when it came to updating the residency status of Brits living in Italy. This was fantastically good news as what it meant in practice was that we would not need to go through the whole convoluted application process from scratch again: effectively, the eligibility standard applied to Brits as EU citizens would continue to be applied to us as non-EU citizens. As a result, all we would need to do to secure our post-Brexit residency was to provide proof of our pre-Brexit residency (ie take our identity cards along to the registry) and we would be provided with new certificates of registration that would now be issued on the basis of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and no longer on the basis our citizenship of an EU member state. We wouldn’t even need to get new identity cards.
That was the good news. The less good news, however, was that this decision was reached so late in the day that disseminating the new rules in double-quick time to every comune in the country where Brits were resident was never going happen. Nor was there any great optimism that the new rules would be applied correctly and that Brits still would not be required (wrongly) to jump through a range of bureaucratic hoops. And indeed, ‘British in Italy’, the national advocacy group who had lobbied hard for this declaratory procedure, was soon flooded with accounts of comuni all over the country that were essentially going ‘off piste’ and requiring their British residents to provide all sorts of paperwork and register with this that or the other local authority – all in complete contravention of the rules, even though most such contraventions were probably a result of misunderstanding or misinformation.
Fortunately, by the time we had mustered the courage to join battle at our town hall, the Ministry of the Interior had produced a one-page summary of the relevant legislation, and the Association of Italian Comuni, in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior and the British Embassy, had put together what amounted to a set of instructions for comuni, setting out exactly what they had to ask for, what they were permitted to ask for and, crucially, what they were not permitted to ask for, as well as providing a sample of the document they needed to issue, complete with the wording they were to use.
So it was with at least a degree of optimism that in mid-November we climbed the marble stairs to the registry office with its beamed ceiling, terracotta floor tiles and tall shuttered windows that looked across to the Sibillini Mountains. It soon became clear that our optimism had been misplaced, for judging by the apprehension etched on the face of the clerk as we explained what we wanted and showed her the documents to guide her through the process, we concluded that the new rules had not got as far as Montelupone with just its two British residents. She scanned the papers hastily, sucked her teeth and shook her head.
“You’ll have to make another appointment; I need to check with the Immigration Authority,” she announced with a haughtiness that did little to disguise her own nervousness.
“But these are the rules,” I countered.
“That may well be the case, but I still need to hear it from the authorities. Come back next week.”
We had little choice but to do as we were told, but in the meantime sought and secured confirmation that the information we had given to the clerk was indeed correct, and that all she was suppposed to do was check our identity cards and print new certificates with the updated wording. Thus armed, we returned to the registry, as instructed, a week later.
“Right, before I can issue new certificates, I need to see proof of your health insurance.”
“But that’s not what the rules say,” we protested, pointing to the sentence in the guidance notes from the Association of Italian Comuni that expressly forbade such requirements.
“That’s just an opinion,” said the clerk with a finality that indicated she was not prepared to discuss the matter further.
“But…..,” I began, but Mr Blue-Shirt dug me sharply in the ribs.
“It’s not worth it,” he hissed. “If that’s all they want, then let’s just run with it. Let’s get our certificates first, then take it up with the chap at British in Italy later.”
“I suppose so,” I mumbled, fishing my health insurance card from my purse.
“I will need to see proof of payment too,” declared the clerk. As I drew breath to point out in no uncertain terms her that this was beyond ridiculous since we would not have been issued with our cards had we not made the relevant payment, Mr Blue-Shirt dug me in the ribs again.
“We have the stamped and dated receipts on file, so we can email them to you as soon as we get home,” said Mr Blue-Shirt smoothly while looking daggers at me. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, I will also need proof that you are solvent, and then you need to fill in this form,” she replied, sliding two sheets of paper under the glass screen and across the worn Formica counter top.
I was nearly exploding with frustration by this stage, but Mr Blue-Shirt continued with his charm offensive.
“So you just need to see our bank balance, then?”
“Yes,” confirmed the clerk.
“Will this do?” he asked, showing her our balance on the banking app on his phone.
She peered through the glass and nodded, her haughtiness slightly ebbing away.
“And this is the wording you need for the form,” she said, posting another piece of paper under the glass screen. “Then all I’ll need is those receipts for your health cover and I’ll be able to issue your new certificates.”
By now having the sense to keep my mouth shut, I dutifully filled in the form with all the usual information, ticked the boxes to confirm that we had provided appropriate proof of identity, that we had adequate health cover and that we had sufficient resources not to be a burden on the state, carefully copying the exact wording the clerk had given us.
“So if we email you those receipts straight away, how long will it take for our certificates to come through?” I asked as airily as I could manage: by now it was the end of November, so what with a public holiday, Covid-19 closures, and Christmas fast approaching, there were precious few working days left until the transition period expired and we would be in no-man’s land.
“Just a few days.”
“But before Christmas, yes?”
“Oh yes,” the clerk confirmed. “Definitely.”
We’ll see, I thought…
To our utter amazement, however, the by now almost friendly clerk actually called Mr Blue-Shirt the following Saturday morning to tell us our certificates were ready for collection. So at nine o’clock sharp on Monday morning we walked through the imposing studded doors one last time, sanitised our hands in the dark and draughty foyer, climbed the grand marble staircase and filled in our self-declaration forms before winding our way through to the registry where the clerk was already waiting for us with our certificates. Once we had confirmed that all the details were correct, she signed and stamped them with a theatrical flourish and slid them under the glass screen into our trembling hands. “Grazie mille,” we said slightly breathlessly. “Arrivederci. E buone feste.”
We had barely closed the door behind us before I broke into a full-blown jig in the middle of the dreary grey corridor, while Mr Blue-Shirt contented himself with a couple of restrained air-punches. We had done it; we were on solid ground at last and the huge, two-year-old cloud of uncertainty finally lifted. We were properly resident at last.