Alternative Foods: Get Ready for Brexit

In French class last week we were talking about ‘alternative foods’. A fellow student had eaten worms and grasshoppers (vers et sauterelles) in Central America.

‘Are more people turning to alternative foods in your countries?’ our French teacher asked.

To which I replied: ‘They will after Brexit.’

And how we all laughed. Ha ha ha.

Brexit means breakfast. Yum!

Edible insects: Do insects actually taste any good? (BBC) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-42639877

For such times will soon be upon us: the sunlit uplands of Brexit in which we redefine which animals we think of as food.

In light of this, the UK Government has belatedly launched its new Get Ready for Brexit information campaign. Yes, on Sunday 1 September, while other European nations were marking 80 years since the outbreak of World War Two, plucky little Britain was preparing to go it alone once more. Alone in the belief that Brexit is a good idea.

Germany’s President Steinmeier at the commemoration in Poland (Reuters)

Some might say it’s a bit late to be launching an information campaign on Brexit. Perhaps three years too late. According to the Guardian, government-funded polling revealed the following:

“just a third of the British public have looked for information on what they will need to do, suggesting large-scale ignorance of what Brexit will involve with less than two months to go until the expected departure date.”

Who would’ve expected to find ‘Brexit’ and ‘large-scale ignorance’ in the same sentence?

Let’s Get Ready for Brexit!

To confound our ignorance, the government has unveiled a new website to prepare us for Brexit. I had a quick browse through this website, most of which just links to web pages that were already online. One new feature is a questionnaire which you fill out, giving details of your personal situation, and at the end the website will tell you how badly Brexit will screw you. How handy is that!

One of the site’s ominous questions.

Check out the website yourself, for all the good it’ll do you. It contains little information of value, because even now, two months before we supposedly leave the EU, no one has a clue what’s going on. Ah, would that it weren’t so…

The final insult

Brexit is, of course, a collective loss of rights. And as if to highlight this, on the government’s own web pages for UK nationals living in the EU, the following phrase crops up with tantalising frequency:

“There will be no change to your rights and status as a UK national living in the EU until after Brexit. You can still work, access healthcare and collect your pension as you do now.”

Doesn’t that sound great! How reassuring! Couldn’t we just keep it like that?

But no, the people have spoken. Large-scale ignorance roams free.

Now pass me that tasty bowl of grasshoppers!

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The 5-year route to becoming Belgian

The blog has been pretty silent of late, mostly because I’m trying to forget that a certain someone has become Prime Minister. I mean, if BoJo can live in his own fantasy world where a no-deal Brexit is a good idea, then I can live in my own fantasy world where he is not PM. Try and stop me…!

Becoming Belgian

However, just in case reality bites and Brexit turns out to be a bad idea, I am urgently looking into becoming a Belgian citizen. Belgian citizenship means European citizenship – something with which I grew up, and of which every single British citizen is soon to be stripped.

The flag of Belgium

Why Belgian?

First and foremost, because Belgium is the country where I live. Usually you can only apply for the citizenship of the country that you live in, unless family ties give you access to another country’s citizenship. Irish grannies are very handy in this respect.

However, there are many reasons why Belgian nationality is an especially good one to choose. Belgian nationality has the following advantages:

  • You can apply for nationality after only 5 years’ residence: many EU countries demand far longer, e.g. Germany which requires 8 years’ residence, or Austria which requires 10.
  • You can keep your original nationality as well: many EU countries do not allow dual nationality. If I gained Dutch nationality, for example, I would have to give up my UK citizenship.
  • You do not have to pay millions of shady euros into the Belgian economy: the less said about Cyprus and Malta the better.

How do you become Belgian?

I will not go into the philosophical aspects of becoming Belgian (perhaps in another post). Rather I’ll examine the practical steps.

There are several routes to becoming Belgian. Apart from marriage to a Belgian citizen, the most straightforward route is through ‘integration’, for which the following conditions apply:

  • You must have lived in Belgium for at least 5 years and have gained permanent residency.
  • You must have worked for at least 468 days during the past 5 years.
  • You must have basic knowledge (A2 level) of one of the three national languages (French, Dutch, German) spoken in the region where you live.
  • You must be socially integrated.
  • You must be 18 or older.

Social integration: taking the test

This week I took my first step on the long road to becoming Belgian. I passed a social integration exam organised by the Flemish government’s Agentschap Integratie en Inburgering (AGII). This is the simplest way to prove your social integration, and it is entirely free.

Generously enough, you can do the exam in English, French, Dutch or German. The language you choose has no impact on the outcome of the exam. All the same, whichever language you choose, you will be required to understand enough Dutch to read short documents such as an electricity bill, about which you will then have to answer questions.

The test takes an hour and consists of questions relating to daily life in Belgium and the values of Belgian society (with a focus on the Flemish-speaking part of the country).

What might you be asked?

During the test you might have to fill in forms in Dutch based on information you have been given. You might have to look up ticket prices for the zoo. You have Internet access during the test, so if in doubt you can look things up. This might sound easy, but in reality it is often hard to find the information you need online, especially under time pressure, and much of it might not be in English.

The questions on the values of Belgian society should pose no problems for Europeans though, as these are likely to be the same as the values of your own society. For example, you may be asked about the acceptability of homosexual relationships, whether or not you should give up your bus seat for the elderly, or whether you are allowed to slap your children about.

Whether or not you have ever given up your bus seat for the elderly, you probably know that you ought to do so. The test is manageable without any preparation, although the high pass mark (80%) means you have to take some care when answering the questions. It would be a shame to miss out by 1 mark.

If you do not already have a recognised Dutch certificate of level A2 or higher, you will also have to do a Dutch test before being deemed socially integrated.

Integration courses are also offered by the French-speaking authorities, though these follow a different format.

Geslaagd!

(Dutch for ‘passed’.) I am very pleased to say that I passed the test and can now proudly boast of my social integration in Belgium. And it’s a good thing too, because failure would have meant having to follow a lengthy integration course in the evenings together with everyone else who didn’t know that you aren’t allowed to slap your children.

As such, I have taken a small step towards gaining Belgian citizenship. Now I only have to wait another 2.5 years for permanent residency. With any luck I can apply for citizenship in 2022. I can almost smell the stoofvlees at the end of the tunnel!

Mmmmm… stoofvlees

Hang on, why is any of this necessary?

It is worth pointing out that all of this should be completely unnecessary. All this planning, all this administrative hassle, all the tests and scrambling for paperwork… Neither I, nor the Belgian state, nor any of the UK citizens across the EU27, nor any of the EU citizens living in the UK, should have to be putting themselves through this. The only reason for all this angst and bureaucracy is the sad, pointless, national meltdown that is Brexit.

And of course I am not alone. So far 3500 Brits have become Belgian since the referendum. And many more are still trying.

The UK may soon start producing blue passports. But with a bit of luck, my next one will be European burgundy.

Comrades! What would you not do for Brexit?

Ah, remember those fond, heady days when Theresa May was Prime Minister… Those days when we thought things couldn’t get any worse. How naïve! In Brexit Britain, things can always get worse!

Now the British public waits on tenterhooks. Will Jeremy Hunt be our new PM? Or will it be Boris Johnson?

Luckily this weighty decision has been taken out of our hands and delegated to 150,000-ish card-carrying members of the Tory party.

Governed by oddballs

So who are these responsible, thoughtful individuals who will take this decision for us?

According to BBC statistics they look as follows: 70% are men, 97% are white, 60% are from southern England, 86% are of higher social class, their average age is 57, and a high proportion are no longer in work. Six out of 10 want the death penalty back.

In short, they look like a retired, white, southern, upper-class male aged 57 who believes in hanging. As the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee points out, these are oddballs.

It is clear on what basis the oddballs will make their choice: they will choose the candidate most likely to bring about a no-deal Brexit. In fact, so great is their hunger for Brexit that they are willing to sacrifice almost anything to bring it about. A recent YouGov poll showed the following:

When I saw this, I was vaguely reminded of the scene in Nineteen-Eighty-Four when O’Brien asks Winston and Julia how far they would go to bring down the Party.

‘You are prepared to give your lives?’

‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to commit murder?’

‘Yes.’

‘To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?’

‘Yes.’

‘To betray your country to foreign powers?’

‘Yes.’

I imagine the YouGov poll followed a similar pattern:

‘You are prepared to break up the Union?’

‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to destroy the Conservative Party?’

‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to inflict significant damage on the UK economy, causing disaster for millions of innocent people?’

‘Yes.’

Or something like that. The difference being that in this case it will not be the Tory party members who end up in Room 101. It will be the rest of us. But who cares! At least we’ll have Brexit!

Too far

The only thing the Tory members will not countenance is Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. To paraphrase Meatloaf, they would do anything for Brexit, but they won’t do that.

“I would do anything for love”

A slightly late 2019 New Year roundup

I had meant to post this back in January, oops. Still, it’s never too late to say Happy New Year, right?

Until yesterday it had been over 12 months since my last New Year’s roundup, and about 7 months since my last post on this blog. Not that nothing Brexit-related had been happening. Rather, most of it had been too tedious and frustrating to bother writing about. Yes, I may have been suffering from that new syndrome called ‘Brexit fatigue’.

In previous episodes of The UK…

My last post of 2018 marked David Davis’s resignation. Ah, happy times… Since then, Boris Johnson has also resigned (good riddance, though I’d have preferred to see him fired!) and Dominic Raab has both entered and exited the role of Brexit Secretary, to be replaced by Stephen Barclay (who?). In December, Theresa May dithered over putting her Withdrawal Agreement to a vote, and then postponed it to January, only to suffer a crushing defeat in the Commons. She then won a motion of no confidence, in which the same people who had sunk her Deal decided she was still the best person for the job. In normal times, all of this would be a national crisis. In Brexitland, this is par for the course.

The Dutch news reporting on Theresa May’s ‘slag’ or ‘blow’ in parliament.

Heroes or Traitors?

At the time of writing, the first pebbles of what may turn out to be a defection-rockfall have started to tumble. Eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have left their parties, among them my own personal political heart-throb Anna Soubry (Anna for PM!) to sit as an Independent Group in parliament. Whether this comes to anything, I don’t know. If enough Tory MPs quit (i.e. 7) then the government will fall. However, I doubt any Tory MP wants to be known as the defector who collapsed a Tory government, so who knows if that will ever happen. I am intrigued, but not hopeful.

Meanwhile in Brussels

So where does this leave things in Brussels? Up in the air, is the best answer. Last month, the Commissioner for personnel held a meeting with all UK employees of the European Commission. The message was largely reassuring: the majority of them will be allowed to stay. This is because most of them have been here for years and years, and have permanent contracts. Their chances of promotion will be negligible, but they will not be asked to leave.

The situation is less clear for newer members of staff like me, who do not hold a permanent contract. For UK employees on a contract like mine, a decision will be taken in each case on whether the individual staff member will be allowed to stay, based on the individual merits of the staff member. While the Commission encouraged its Directors to ‘show generosity’ when making such decisions, there is no obligation to keep UK staff members and no indication whether ‘generosity’ will be shown in all cases.

Deal or No Deal?

The point at which decisions on UK staff will be taken depends on whether or not the UK leaves the EU with a deal. If there is a deal, the future of affected UK staff will be decided at the end of the transition period (31 December 2020). If there is no deal, decisions will start being made on Brexit Day, i.e. 30 March 2019, i.e. in a month’s time. This means that if there is a no-deal Brexit, I could be out of a job before the end of the year.

And then what? I have not been in Belgium long enough to receive permanent residency. Will I be allowed to work at a normal company as a non-EU national? And if I don’t find a new job fast, will I be allowed to stay in Belgium at all? Yesterday’s Q&A with the British Ambassador was not exactly reassuring on any of these matters.

Three ex-Tories. It’s never too late to be a hero!

But, in the end, what can one do. Like most people involved with Brexit, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’ll hunker down and hope for the best. Happy New Year!

Q&A with the British Ambassador

Hello again. On Wednesday 20 February, I attended a Brexit Q&A with the British ambassador for UK citizens living in Belgium. As Theresa May was also in town at the time, it was kind of Her Excellency Ms Alison Rose to take the time to come and see us. Or perhaps she was desperate for an excuse not to be at the embassy when Theresa arrived.

‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’

I’m not sure what the purpose of the meeting was. It certainly wasn’t to reassure us that everything would be fine. If anything I left the Q&A feeling rather less reassured than I had been when I walked in. Perhaps the main purpose was simply to show that the embassy was doing something.

Also present was a delegation of suited plonkers from DExEU sitting down the front of the auditorium, who stood up to smile at us at the beginning and then said nothing further for the rest of the evening.

Alison Rose took questions on citizens’ rights, employment, driving licences, residency and travelling with pets. She made it clear that UK citizens would not be able to move to another EU country as easily after Brexit as we could now. All of which we already knew, but it still hurt to hear it.

Waiting for the Ambassador to arrive. The meeting was in the ING Marnix building.

I got the chance to ask a question about being made redundant. What would happen if, say, I were to lose my job because of Brexit? Would I be entitled to unemployment benefits? Would it be harder to find another job? Would a period of unemployment affect any future application for permanent residency or citizenship? Alison brushed off the question. Most of this was in Belgium’s hands. She only had anecdotal evidence that yes, finding a job would be harder post-Brexit. Cheers, Alison.

It is easy when watching the British political news to see Brexit only as an abstract concept. The cut-and-thrust of the House of Commons, the dashes to Brussels to thrash out deals… But sitting in the auditorium that evening, it brought it home again just how many tiny, soul-destroying and bureaucratic ways Brexit is screwing things up for so many people. From work permits to travelling with pets to agonising over whether to take out another nationality (if eligible)… My overall reaction was a mix of outrage and sadness that anyone, any of us, should have to be thinking about any of this at all. It is all so utterly, frustratingly pointless.

Anyway, there were free sandwiches and cava at the end, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad.

Sandwiches and cava. At least the evening wasn’t a complete waste.

 

Requiem for David Davis

David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, has resigned. No longer shall he be collecting his six-figure ministerial salary; no longer shall he be thrashing out deals with Michel Barnier. Though it’s not clear whether he ever did. The Financial Times reported that Davis spent no more than 4 hours face-to-face with Barnier this year.

Au revior, Davis.

This resignation comes after Theresa May’s crunch away day at Chequers with her full cabinet. I’ve been on office away days before, and even compared to those, the Chequers trip sounds rubbish. Over the course of the day she finally got her ministers to agree to her version of a soft Brexit. It seemed unity had been restored. Until now.

Some might think it cynical that Davis chose to resign only this morning. Cabinet members were warned not to resign during the Chequers meeting, because it would mean they’d lose their ministerial car and have to make their own way home across the meadows to the nearest train station.

But after being driven home, Davis must have had a moment of clarity. ‘I wouldn’t have done a good job’ of delivering May’s Brexit plan, he explained after resigning. Very perceptive. Especially given the pig’s ear he’s been making of the negotiations so far. What made him think he’d be any worse at this?

One can only feel for the civil servants he leaves behind at the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU to those in the parlance). Having seen a few resignations myself, I presume this means there will be a goodbye cake in the office kitchen, and possibly a sad sip of sparkling wine with colleagues, who all profess that they’ll miss him, and promise to stay in touch.

I had the pleasure of meeting one of Davis’s DExEU colleagues – a guy who did the Commission traineeship at the same time as me, and has since left for the bright lights of London. According to him, about 80% of the people working at DExEU are pro-Remain and are just having to suck it up and do the job. I’m sure they’re having a whip-round for a goodbye gift and a card right now.

Anyway, enough about Davis. The question is: who’s next? Who will replace him? And who will be next to resign? Will we see the collapse of the May government? Who knows?

Either way, after months of tedium, Brexit has suddenly got interesting again.

Will Brits at the Commission get free Belgian citizenship?

Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was giving a speech to the European Parliament. He was the latest EU leader to address the EP in recent years (Theresa May declined her invitation).

Also speaking was Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. He praised Michel for his generosity, and urged him to be generous in granting Belgian citizenship to ‘UK officials here in Brussels’.

Belgian PM Charlie Michaels (L) and Commission President JCJ (R)

Those who follow my blog will know how feverishly, how rabidly I long for an EU passport. Free Belgian citizenship for UK officials? Yes please!!!

I’ll believe it when I see it

A common rule of thumb, though, is that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Despite the flurry of excitement that surrounded Juncker’s intervention (the Express was frothing at the mouth with rage) the situation is not so simple.

Firstly, Belgian citizenship is granted by the Belgian courts. And, as in most good democracies, the justice system is independent of the government. Therefore it is unlikely that Charles Michel would have much influence in the matter.

Furthermore, the term ‘UK officials’ is rather vague. For instance, I myself do not know what a ‘UK official’ is, or even if I am one. British employees of the EU Institutions have so far met obstacles when applying for Belgian citizenship, mostly because they don’t pay Belgian tax. They pay so-called ‘community tax’ that goes towards their European private health insurance and social security. Belgian authorities have sometimes taken the view that, if applicants haven’t contributed to Belgium’s tax coffers, why should they be granted Belgian citizenship?

Therefore it isn’t clear if Juncker was referring to a blanket issuing of Belgian citizenship to all UK staff, or simply urging generosity in granting citizenship to those UK applicants who were already eligible due to residency and language skills, but who had been blocked for tax reasons.

Lastly, Belgium probably doesn’t even want to hand out its citizenship like this. The EU Institutions aim to employ a balanced number of different EU nationalities. If all the EU’s British employees were to become Belgians, there would be little room for any new ‘real’ Belgian staff, and Belgians would face much more competition with each other when applying for promotions etc.

Theo Francken, the Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration (and member of the right-wing Flemish-nationalist party N-VA), has more or less ruled out any special arrangement for Brits. Think what you like about Theo Francken (a quick glance down the ‘Controversies’ section of his Wikipedia page is proof enough for why he should never have been given anything to do with Asylum and Migration), he is probably right. It is highly doubtful that Belgium will freely issue up to 2000 passports to the EU’s distressed UK officials.

Theo Francken, Minister for Asylum and Migration, and owner of a fine set of gums.

A much more equitable solution, in my view, would be to divvy up all remaining 27 EU nationalities between the EU’s British staff, rather than give them all Belgium’s. I’d quite happily settle for a German, Austrian or Dutch passport if it came my way. But I am straying into the realm of fevered dreams again. Most likely Brits at the EU will be stuck with their UK passports for good.