What Will Happen to UK Employees of the EU Institutions?

Last week it was reported that a large number of UK citizens living abroad have applied for the EU nationality of their host country. This was no doubt fuelled by signs from the Conservative government that the UK is seriously thinking of leaving the Single Market.

This is an issue of great urgency not least for UK citizens currently working at the EU institutions. The Treaty on the European Union sets out the following stipulations for employees in Article 28 (a) SR:

« an official may be appointed only on condition that he is a national of one of the Member States of the Union, unless an exception is authorized by the appointing authority (…) »

By the time Brexit comes into force sometime in 2019 (perhaps), UK citizens will no longer be nationals of an EU member state and will no longer fulfil the requirements of Article 28. So what will happen to them?

Maybe somebody still wants us...

Maybe somebody still wants us…

The short answer is: nobody really knows. But the general feeling that I have got during my month in Brussels is that British employees will either have to gain another EU nationality, or be made redundant with a handsome severance package. Probably many people who have made their career at the EU Institutions will have been living in Brussels long enough to apply for Belgian citizenship. But no doubt there are also many who are not eligible.

The EU clearly thinks that naturalisation is the best option. In September the Council held a conference on British nationals at the EU Institutions. You can watch a shaky video recording of the conference here. (Why not see if you can become the 300th viewer!) The main thrust of the EU’s message was along the lines of “Don’t worry, Brits! This is how you become Belgians.” Belgium requires 5 years’ residency before granting citizenship. The many British stagiaires who have just arrived in Brussels with an eye to getting a job will therefore not be eligible for Belgian citizenship by the time the UK leaves the EU.

There was recently a glimmer of hope from Germany, however. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the SDP (the junior partner in Germany’s ruling coalition) urged Germany to grant fast-track citizenship to young Brits living in Germany. (Why oh why did I ever leave Berlin??) Since UK citizens aged 18-24 supposedly voted 70% in favour of Remain, certain politicians in Germany felt that these people should not have their European futures closed off from them by older Leave voters. However, when the issue was debated in the German parliament, it was met with stiff opposition.

Save us, Sigmar!

Save us, Sigmar!

It is understandable, really. Germany’s Turkish community has long faced barriers to naturalisation, and Germany is already trying to integrate more refugees than any other EU country. Why should Britons be given preferential treatment? In any case, this is of little use to UK citizens who are currently based in Brussels.

And yet, never one to give up hope, I made my own enquiries with the German embassy in Brussels. I emphasised my time spent in Berlin, my fluent command of German, my European career, and my lasting ties to Germany. None of this was of much interest to a certain Herr Zeiler, who replied with the following:

“eine Einbürgerung von im Ausland wohnhaften ausländischen Staatsangehörigen ist äußerst selten und regelmäßig nur bei Vorliegen eines besonderen öffentlichen (staatlichen) Interesses möglich. […] Anhaltspunkte für ein derartiges besonderes öffentliches Interesse vermag ich Ihrer Zuschrift nicht zu entnehmen.”

Disappointing but not surprising.

This leaves only the option of citizenship through marriage. Time to call in a few favours…

R.

In the words of Tina Turner, 'What's love got to do with it?'

In the words of Tina Turner, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’

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Visit to UKREP

Welcome back! It has now been over three weeks at the Commission, and the list of conferences and networking events is growing ever longer. For example, today we went to the offices of UKREP. UK trainees from all EU Institutions were invited for an afternoon of presentations, quizzes and hobnobbing at the UK’s EU embassy. To start with, here is an insider tip: UKREP is not pronounced “UK Rep”. It is pronounced “ukrep” – as in “uck-rep” – which is an acronym crying out for vandalism.

The auspicious premises of (f?)uck-rep in all their glory.

The auspicious premises of (f?)uck-rep in all their glory.

I can’t provide too many juicy details, as we were all sworn to secrecy. But we were assured right at the start that, despite what some of our European colleagues might suggest, Brexit is definitely going to happen. This was met by gasps of shock from the trainees. Those looking for reassurance (or ‘crumbs of comfort’ as one trainee put it) were to be disappointed.

The general feeling I got was that most of the staff there quite understandably were Remainers who now grudgingly have to work on Brexit. We all felt sorry for one speaker who had devoted much of her career at Whitehall towards working on the issues she felt passionate about at the EU level. Only weeks after finally being seconded to Brussels to do her dream job, Brexit happened. The UK would no longer be playing an active part in her project, and instead of working on issues of EU-wide benefit, she was now having to help negotiate the UK’s exit. Another dream smeared greasily underneath the Brexit bus.

No crumbs of comfort. Only dollops of disappointment.

No crumbs of comfort. Only dollops of disappointment.

The UKREP offices have a red telephone box in them, and pictures of the Queen. The speakers were at pains to assure us that there were still opportunities for Brits in Brussels, and that we should network tirelessly to get jobs and make contacts. However, the mood was resigned. And all the while I could not stop my eyes drifting, ever so slowly, out the window and across the road to where a Saltire hung above the offices of the Scottish government’s representation…

R.

The iconic British phone box, similar to the model found on UKREP's premises.

The iconic British phone box, similar to the model found on UKREP’s premises.

Referendum Night

23 June 2016 will forever go down in my personal memoires (if anyone should ever read them) as ‘The Night Everything Got F*cked Up’.

I was living in Amsterdam at the time. I had a full-time office job at an international company. I had been working there for almost a year. The previous summer, in 2015, I had completed my MA in European Studies. Living, working and studying in the Netherlands had felt no more complicated than doing so in the UK. These were rights to which I felt entitled, and which I’d never questioned. I had taken it for granted that these rights would always exist.

Then Brexit happened.

Sad flag. :(

Sad flag. 😦

The run-up to the referendum

I hadn’t been too worried during the run-up. In the office, people had occasionally asked me about Brexit. Did I think it would happen? What would I do if the UK voted to leave?

It was moot, I said. It would not happen. The consequences would be too disastrous. Only oddballs and xenophobes supported Brexit. (The people David Cameron once dismissed as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’. Oh, the hubris!) Most of the UK wasn’t like that. Nobody I knew was going to vote Brexit. Sense would prevail.

And yet, the result was rather different. So why did it take me so much by surprise?

I wonder now, in hindsight, if perhaps my understanding of the UK was ‘trapped’ in the politics that were current when I left. It had been four and a half years since I left the UK. It had never occurred to me that within a few years we would be out of the EU. Surely things couldn’t have changed that much in so short a time? Surely my grasp of UK politics wasn’t so tenuous?

Surely politics couldn’t have shifted so swiftly and drastically to the right without me noticing? But things had shifted.

I felt the first inklings of doubt back in May. It started when I watched the Question Time referendum debate. The panellists for Remain were Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady. The Brexiteers were represented by Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom. In front of a packed Wembley Arena, populated by equal numbers of Remain and Leave voters, I watched Boris Johnson blurt out one jingoistic soundbite after another, while Gisela Stuart robotically repeated the phrase ‘Take Back Control’. But what chilled me was the response that these empty words received. At the sound of each signal-word, whether ‘Sovereignty’, ‘Democracy’, or ‘Control’, a great roar would rise up from the Leave voters in the audience. As the Leave panellists derided the Remainers for their lack of ‘patriotism’, the baying of the crowd became frightening. What scared me was the vehemence with which those audience members supported Brexit. My God, this might actually happen, I thought.

I consoled myself, though: there was a precedent. In the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, there had been a point when one poll had put Yes ahead of No. And that had worked out all right in the end.

I was against Scottish independence at the time. I worried that it would leave Scotland isolated and outside the EU. Now, thanks to Brexit, Scotland is about to be dragged into isolation outside the EU anyway – how times have changed. (But more on that in another article.) In short, although my confidence stumbled, it quickly recovered

David Dimbleby. The bearer of bad news.

David Dimbleby. The bearer of bad news.

The fateful night

On 23 June, I wasn’t worried. I had arranged to vote by proxy. Remain had it in the bag. In the evening I went home and settled down to watch the results come in on the BBC. (In Amsterdam you get BBC1 and BBC2 on TV, as well as some fun German channels.) It wasn’t until after 2am that the first results started to come in. The exit polls suggested that Remain had narrowly won it. Nigel F*rage had conceded defeat. David Dimbleby was saying that Remain wasn’t winning by as much as it needed to in the results that had already come in. But it was all going well enough. ‘I’ll stay up until I know it’s safe,’ I said to myself.

But the long horror had only just begun.

I don’t remember exactly when Leave started to overtake Remain in the results. But it was after 4am before I decided to take myself off to bed. There was a cold, hard feeling inside me. I think I knew, as I drifted off to sleep that night, that Remain had lost.

A UK passport. Not worth so much now.

A UK passport. Not worth so much now.

The morning after

My radio alarm woke me at 7:30am on Friday 24 June. The Dutch news blared out. I could hear something about Brexit. Groot-Britannië heeft gekozen voor een vertrek uit de Europese Unie. A clip of David Dimbleby’s voice was saying: ‘That’s it. We’re out.’

I looked at my phone. It was full of messages from fellow Brits in despair, and from non-Brits expressing shock and sympathy. I was so angry that I will admit I teared up.

I was numb as I got ready for work. I switched on the TV to see what the BBC were saying. My Danish flatmate appeared from her room. ‘Cameron is about to resign,’ she said. I didn’t stay to watch. I was already late for work.

On the tram to work I read the news on my phone. I watched the video of David Cameron resigning. And I remember it was then that it hit me. Cameron was gone. Brexit was not just an idea; something concrete had happened because of it. Should I even be going to work today? Did I still have a job or was I suddenly an illegal immigrant? Why had none of the Leave figureheads thought about this?

When I got to work I didn’t speak to anybody for a while. A fellow Brit had kindly left a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on my desk, in commiseration.

Eventually though, life intervened, and a semblance of normality descended. The jokes began. Colleagues from Egypt and Turkey offered to give advice about visa applications for non-EU citizens. It helped. We laughed. It was funny. But at the same time, it was very much not funny.

My last resort was to telephone the Austrian embassy in The Hague. My grandmother is from Austria. I asked the embassy’s citizenship department whether I was eligible for a passport. No, they said. I was not. This was the final nail in the coffin. And with it, I realised that my future living in Europe was now very much in question.

Weltweit für Sie da.

Weltweit für Sie da.

The future

But life is not without its little coincidences. Two days later I received an email from the European Commission. My application for a traineeship had been successful.

My first day of work in Brussels would be 3 October 2016. It wasn’t over yet!

So here I am sitting in Brussels, at the heart of the European Commission, with a front row seat to watch the UK navigate the quickest route up its own derriere. Stick around to see what happens. Let the tragicomedy commence!

R.

Brussels, October 2016