The Hague - Dutch judges have referred a landmark case brought by British expats demanding clarification over their rights as European citizens after Brexit to the EU's top court.
It is believed to be the first such case involving Britons living in Europe to go before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, lawyers said Wednesday.
In what could have far-reaching implications for about one million Brits on the continent, judge Floris Bakels called in the Amsterdam court's written decision for the EU's top tribunal to answer two preliminary questions.
The questions are: "Does Brexit mean that Britons automatically lose their European citizenship or do they maintain their rights, and if so, under what conditions?" their lawyer Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm said.
Five British expats and two expat organisations -- Brexpats - Hear our Voice and the Commercial Anglo Dutch Society -- last month took the Dutch government to court.
The plaintiffs argued they have independent rights as EU citizens, over and above being citizens of any specific EU member country -- including Britain.
They insist their legal rights as EU citizens -- including freedom of movement -- should therefore remain and be protected by The Netherlands even after Britain withdraws from the 28-member body on March 29, 2019.
They asked the Dutch judges to refer the matter to the European court for clarification "as to what exactly being a European citizen means," said one of the plaintiffs, Stephen Huyton.
Observers say that should the ECJ indeed rule that Britons have separate implicit rights as EU citizens it could have massive implications.
"It could also throw a spanner in the current Brexit negotiations," said Huyton, who told AFP shortly after Wednesday's ruling that he was "shocked and delighted with the decision."
"But we have to realise that this is just the first step to eventually getting clarity about our status," Huyton added.
Judge Bakels gave lawyers a week to comment on the decision and to add any other preliminary questions to be put to the ECJ.
The decision sparked a flurry of congratulatory tweets, including one by Ryan Brightwell who said "I'm British and living in the Netherlands, and I just want to say, thanks for pushing this. I appreciate it."
- 'Forgotten many' -
Huyton, who has lived in The Netherlands for the past 24 years, said many expats "felt a sense of injustice", referring to them as "the forgotten many".
Their wishes were ignored during the 2016 referendum as many were not legally allowed to vote, despite still being British citizens and in many cases taxpayers, he said.
"This case intends to give us clarity. Not only to the 46,000 Britons living in The Netherlands," but also to British citizens living on the European continent, Huyton added.
"There is still a lot of discussion to come, but we feel like a bunch of pawns on a chess board."
Increased uncertainty about the future has seen a rise in applications by British expats to become Dutch citizens, a report said Wednesday.
In 2015, before the Brexit vote, 40 British nationals went through the process to get a Dutch passport, doubling to 80 in 2016, the website DutchNews.nl reported.
That figure climbed to 150 within the first eight months of 2017, it said, citing immigration bureau figures.
A preliminary agreement in December between Britain and the EU sets out residency rights and benefits available to more than three million EU citizens living in Britain and another one million British nationals living in the EU.
The deal guarantees their post-Brexit rights, with family members also able to claim residence, but "as the British government has made clear -- nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," Huyton said.
By Jan Hennop