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!

Advertisements

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.

R.

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.

R.

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.

R.

The Commonwealth Will Save Us

Ah, the Commonwealth – that quaint relic of British imperialism. Or, as some Brexiters see it, the panacea to our Brexit woes. Surely our loyal former colonies will help us fill the trade gap caused by leaving the EU?

If this is the UK’s plan, then it is going about it in a strange way. Shouldn’t the Government be trying to drum up goodwill among Commonwealth countries to lay the groundwork for a boost in trade?

Theresa May looking characteristically uncomfortable during a trip to India, the Commonwealth’s most populous nation

But no. Instead, the Government has been deporting elderly people to Commonwealth countries they’ve never set foot in. These are people of the so-called ‘Windrush’ generation, who were invited to Britain in the late 1940s to help rebuild it after WWII. Their children are now being asked to prove that they’re here legally.

A minor error, easily cleared up with a bit of diplomacy, you might think? The sort of thing that could perhaps be smoothed over at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this week?

Again, no. With trademark cluelessness, Downing Street ‘has rejected a formal diplomatic request to discuss the immigration problems experienced by some Windrush-generation British residents at this week’s meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, rebuffing a request from representatives of 12 Caribbean countries for a meeting with the prime minister’. So, a big British two fingers up to the Commonwealth before the meeting has even started.

Undaunted by her own incompetence, Theresa May then opened the CHOGM with a call for increased trade between the UK and the Commonwealth nations. ‘Give us your trade but take back your people,’ was basically the message.

This ties in with analysis by Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, who views UK plans to substitute EU trade for Commonwealth trade with derision. He writes:

…when it comes to the genuinely vast potential of the Indian market, a UK government driven by the anti-immigration agenda of leave voters is unlikely to make great strides in that direction. For example, India seems likely to want a relaxation of visa restrictions on its nationals in return for trade liberalisation. Certainly, the issue of immigration overshadowed Theresa May’s visit there in November 2016, leading to accusations that the UK wanted India’s business, but not its people. And whatever the future holds, invoking the name of the Commonwealth is unlikely to oil the wheels of any trade deal.

Put simply, free trade often goes hand in hand with the free movement of people. That this should be any different when trading with Commonwealth countries as opposed to EU countries is symptomatic of the Brexiteers’ fantasy that you can get something for nothing. Still, at least the Commonwealth Games should be fun.

R.

Crumbs of Comfort

Hello again from Brussels. A small crumb of comfort tumbled down from the Brexit smorgasbord this week. At a meeting on Wednesday, the Commission agreed that British employees would not be summarily fired on 29 March 2019 (i.e. Brexit D-Day) which, incidentally, is in exactly one year from today.

Up to now the position of British staff had been looking precarious. One condition for employment at the Commission is to be an EU national, as laid out in Article 28 (a) SR of the Treaty on the European Union:

« an official may be appointed only on condition that he is a national of one of the Member States of the Union (…) »

In turn, Article 49 of the EU Staff Regulation allows for the dismissal of employees who no longer fulfil the Commission’s employment criteria. Article 50 of the same document also provides for forced retirement ‘in the interests of the service’, which is a much more vague and flexible means of getting rid of staff.

As the UK is the only country that has ever left the EU, there is no precedent for handling members of staff who are nationals of a seceding state. Interestingly though, the Commission apparently employs four Norwegians and one Icelander – citizens of states which were planning to join the EU, but never got around to it. This means that employing nationals of a non-EU state is apparently possible.

Luckily (for people like me) the Commission has now ended speculation. It decided on Wednesday that permanent officials would not be forced into retirement under Article 49 except where there was a conflict of interest with regard to international obligations (i.e. if they were working on trade deals with the UK, for example). This echoes what the Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, Günther Oettinger, suggested in July 2017.

Commissioner Oettinger – the future of UK staff is in his hands.

Not being a permanent official myself, though, I was more interested in the second part of the agreement pertaining to ‘contractual agents’ (i.e. me). Contract Agents are employed on shorter-term contracts, usually for only 12 months (though if renewed enough times the contract will become permanent). In this case the Commission decided as follows:

« la Commission est légalement tenue d’effectuer une analyse au cas par cas afin d’autoriser des exceptions dûment justifiées à l’exigence de nationalité prévue par le régime applicable aux autres agents ; la Commission s’engage toutefois à ce que l’autorité habilitée à conclure des contrats fasse un usage généreux et transparent de cette possibilité de dérogation ; son appréciation sera fondée sur l’intérêt du service. »

Or, in English, the Commission will decide on a case by case basis which British Contract Agents it will continue to employ ‘in the interests of the service’. As such this is not a guarantee that my time at the Commission will last long after Brexit, but it does mean that I probably won’t be fired on the spot on Brexit Day (or ‘Independence Day’ depending which camp you fall into).

If all goes well my current contract will be renewed in February 2019. However, while I will probably not be fired for being British, there is still no guarantee that the contract will be renewed again in February 2020. The Commission’s decision talks only about keeping staff who currently have a contract, and not about offering staff further contracts in the future.

All of which means I have 12 months to somehow become a permanent official… Or get another passport. Both of which are unlikely!

R.

Thank Goodness for Distractions

Last week, the UK and EU agreed a Brexit deal so embarrassing for the UK, that Theresa May must have been glad of the distraction of impending nuclear war.

It seems that the UK has agreed to leave Northern Ireland in the single market if no other solution can be found. The UK will also have a transition phase of 21 months (lasting from the end of March 2019 to the end of December 2020). During that period, the UK will have to abide by EU laws on fishing, and any EU citizens who arrive in the UK will have the same rights as EU citizens who were there before. Apparently this arrangement will be reciprocal. By which I mean GET OUT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN, Brits! Nobody wants to be on that last boat from Dover on 31 December 2020, escaping from Brexit Britain like the last chopper out of Saigon.

To cap it all, we also learned that the new blue British passport will be made by a Franco-Dutch firm. The rival plucky British firm was outbid. Embarrassing! Where is a proud Brexiteer to hide?

A sexy burgundy passport on the left, and an uncool, unfashionable blue passport on the right.

Luckily There Was Russia

Luckily we didn’t have to focus too hard on Brexit, thanks to all the sabre-rattling between London and Moscow. Are we getting a taste for how cold the world might be outside the EU? Is this perhaps the wrong time to be isolating ourselves from our democratic friends in Europe?

Surely not. As we all know, the real enemy is not Putin and his nukes, but rather the cheese-munching bureaucrats of Brussels. Get your priorities right, Remoaners!

Cambridge Analytica

Even Putin could only do so much to help Theresa May’s government save face. Now we are learning that Facebook data may have been unlawfully used in election campaigns, possibly even in the Brexit referendum. Hence why you may have seen the annoying advert below in your Facebook feed.

Very sneaky. Making it look like Brexit is pro-immigration and anti-racist. I wonder how many people fell for it.

And what about funding? Apparently funds were misused by Vote Leave. And according to an insider who worked in the pro-Brexit youth organisation BeLeave, the people at the top of the Leave campaign all knew about it. Did this make a difference in the referendum outcome? Sadly, I fear not. But it’s still pretty naughty.

The Remoaners of UKREP

Last weekend I spoke to someone with direct personal knowledge of the mood at UKREP. UKREP, of course, is the UK’s embassy in Brussels and its point of contact with the European Institutions. You may remember I visited their offices as a trainee, where I was spun the party line about how hard all the Brexiteers had been thinking about Brexit, and how it wasn’t just a mad exercise in self-delusion.

According to my contact, the mood these days at UKREP is grim. The people working there are mostly Remain voters. Now they are having to break apart all the progress and agreements made during the UK’s 40-odd years of EU membership. Morale is low. There is a high turnover of staff. Politicians are flown in from London to tell them what a great job they’re doing and how this will be a Good Thing for Britain. Even Boris Johnson was here this week to give them a pep talk. On top of this, Theresa May micro-manages every file, every document, but is unable to make up her mind about anything. She dithers.

The only good news from UKREP is that they will probably be hiring soon. With all the extra work they have to do thanks to Brexit, there are rumours that UKREP will have to double in size. Maybe they’ll keep a chair warm for me when I lose my Commission job in 2 years’ time?

R.