Guy Verhofstadt is a Lad

In a world with few heroes left, Guy Verhofstadt stands out. Since the Brexit vote last year, Guy has been standing up for the rights of all those left uncertain and dislocated by the referendum result. His CV is long: MEP, leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium… And all-round lad.

Guy Verhofstadt – a ray of hope

In February this year the Independent reported that Guy was hoping to offer “associate EU citizenship” to UK citizens who wanted it. I probably don’t need to tell you how my heart leapt at the prospect. “Thousands” of Brits had already requested a continuation of their EU citizenship, he said. And so, in a flurry of emotion, I looked up Mr Verhofstadt in the EU’s internal email address book, and I fired off a message to him, to add my voice to the chorus.

Imagine my surprise when yesterday I got a reply!

Group hug for anyone who loves the EU!

In a kind email, Guy assured me that he fully understood my worries and uncertainty. It was necessary to “look at what special arrangements could be put in place for individual citizens…who want to continue their relationship with the European Union”, he said. He acknowledged that it would be hard, and that success was not guaranteed. But he finished with the promise that:

I will do everything I can for people like you who feel European, did not vote for Brexit and are concerned that no one is listening to them. I hope this reassures you that your voice is being heard and that I am doing all I can to fight for your rights.

What a top bloke! Guy, you are my knight in shining armour. You join the short list of people who give me any hope about Brexit.

Queen Elizabeth of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha flaunts her EU credentials. I always knew she was on our side!

Now let us turn to the other side. While Guy Verhofstadt, the former PM of Belgium, is championing the rights of me, a British citizen, what is my own government doing?

It is hardly worth wasting time on Theresa May’s “generous” offer to EU citizens residing in the UK, which will involve all 3 million of them applying for something new called “settled status”, in a move which the EU dismissed as “below our expectations”.

“Below our expectations” – Donald Tusk is not impressed

Furthermore, if ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and champion of austerity George Osborne is to be believed, in the days after Brexit, every single member of David Cameron’s cabinet agreed to reassure EU nationals that they would be allowed to stay in the UK. Every single member, that is, except the Home Secretary Theresa May, who blocked the motion.

There was a brief moment after the general election when I felt a bit sorry for Theresa May. Then I was reminded of her “Go Home” vans that she sent into neighbourhoods with high immigrant populations. And her campaign against the Human Rights Act. And that time she lectured a nurse about “magic money trees”. And the xenophobic tone of her first Conservative Party conference. And how she had been determined to force through the hardest of hard Brexits. And now, it turns out, it was her that blocked any chance of citizens’ rights being guaranteed right from the start. This was presumably so that she could later use these people’s lives as bargaining chips.

One of Theresa May’s notorious racist vans

Theresa May waited a year before making any kind of offer on citizens’ rights, and her offer is disappointing. It is very telling of these times that I feel my rights are being better represented by Guy Verhofstadt and the European Union than by my own government in London.

Theresa and Guy – I know who I have more faith in

On a related note, I have not yet written to my new Tory MP as planned in a previous post. I’m waiting to see how long this current government lasts before wasting a stamp.

R.

Post-Election Thoughts From Brussels

It would be churlish, caddish, to kick someone when they’re down. It would be mean to react to the results of Theresa May’s snap election with a resounding HAHAHAHAHA. And so, I will hold back, and chortle silently into my sleeve at my desk here in Brussels, instead.

“Did somebody say ‘hung parliament’?”

A Hung Parliament

After a night spent sitting up to watch the results come in, I am now hanging as badly as our parliament, or, indeed, as badly as Theresa May’s credibility in Brussels. However, it looks as if the Conservatives will cling on to power, with Theresa May at the helm, propped up by the DUP. The DUP’s apparent condition for their support is that Northern Ireland will not get any special treatment in a Brexit deal. Sporting of them to want to be screwed as hard as the rest of us.

Aside from Schadenfreude and Fremdschämen at the Tories losing their majority, there are scant reasons for liberal-minded voters to be cheered by the result. Yes, Labour won more seats under Jeremy Corbyn than under Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband; however, they are still about 60 seats short of a majority. The only way to see it as a good result for Labour is to reflect on how low expectations were at the start of the campaign. Managing expectations has played a role on both sides: despite becoming the biggest party, the Conservatives pitched too high, and made it seem as if anything short of a landslide would be a disappointment. Labour on the other hand was expected to do badly, but instead managed to gain a number of seats. Still, not enough. Meanwhile the Lib Dems and SNP do not hold enough seats between them to prop up a government of progressive alliance with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Whichever way you cut it, we will still have a Conservative government led by Theresa May.

A slightly saggy and bloated-looking map of the UK election results

North of the Border

As mentioned in a previous post, the political situation in Scotland is different from that in England. The SNP held 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats following the 2015 election; this has been slashed to 35. After years of returning only one MP north of the border, the Conservatives have gained several seats in Scotland including, it irks me to say, my own constituency. Rest assured my pen is a-quiver as I write to congratulate my new MP and ask politely how he plans to champion my rights as a UK citizen living in an EU country. Rest assured I will share his reply.

What is frustrating is that, in many seats where the SNP were unseated by the Conservatives, the difference  was adequately made up by those who voted for Labour and the Lib Dems. So much for voting tactically. In these cases a vote for the SNP would have helped Jeremy Corbyn more than a vote for Labour. Still, not to be helped.

Jean-Claude Juncker showing how much confidence he has in Theresa May’s chances of getting a good Brexit deal

Where Does This Leave Brexit?

The European Commission has reacted with dismay at the fact that they are still unclear who they’ll be negotiating Brexit with. It is no secret that they would have preferred to be dealing with a Prime Minister who represented a firm majority of whatever colour. A Prime Minister with a broad enough support base would have felt more confident making concessions. A Prime Minister clinging to the flimsiest of mandates is more likely to be captive to the demands of ever smaller sections of her own party. If Theresa May is forced to demand things from the EU which are unworkable, simply because she fears the rebelliousness of the hard Brexit right of her party, then the chances of talks collapsing are increased.

Another unfortunate outcome of this election result is that most likely we have not seen the last of the Three Stooges, the Brexit clowns, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris J*hnson. Fearful of angering their supporters in her party, May will be unable to consign them to the political bin, where they have long belonged. Interestingly it was Davis who said, on election night, that if the Conservative majority had been badly reduced, then this was a sign that voters did not support the Tory vision for Brexit. He dropped a saucy hint that remaining in the Single Market might now be an option.

The Three Brexiteers. Humpty, Dumpty and Numpty.

So there is that to hope for. Here in Brussels, one can only look on aghast. The uncertainty and stability caused by the Brexit vote a year ago has continued unabated. So much for strong and stable government. A humiliated Theresa May will now have to show up at the negotiating table, in full knowledge that her credibility is in tatters. We shall see what kind of a Brexit deal that ends up getting us.

It seems needless to add that all this could have been avoided if the British public had voted differently a year ago on 23rd June 2016.

R.

The UK Election: A View From Brussels

In some ways the UK general election tomorrow presents voters with difficult choices. With a hard-right Tory party and a far-left Labour party appearing to be the only real options, many voters will feel that their more centrist views are not represented.

In another way, it is not a hard choice at all. The Conservatives will pursue a hard Brexit, make those needing social care worse off, and allow the reintroduction of fox hunting. And yet, there are Labour voters who say they won’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn because he “just doesn’t look like Prime Minister material”. This is a strange cognitive leap. Even if you can’t picture Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, surely the alternative is not to vote for pure evil?

“Bring me those foxes.” You know pure evil when you see it.

A View Through The Brussels Prism

Here in Brussels, it is hard to forgive Jezzy Corbz for his lacklustre “7 out of 10” performance during the Remain campaign. Barring a surprise Lib Dem landslide, it looks like whichever Prime Minister we end up with after 8 June will be pursuing some form of Brexit. Still, I would much rather have Jez and Keir Starmer negotiating a soft kind of “I can’t believe it’s not Brexit” than Theresa May and D*vid D*vis crashing us out with no deal and no friends.

It is no secret that the powers in Brussels do not like Theresa May. May’s relationship with Angela Merkel is thought to be ‘almost non-existent’. Her pre-Brexit dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier was described by EU sources as ‘disastrous’. Her unwillingness to criticise President Tr*mp for pulling the US out of the Paris climate deal has alienated her from European leaders. Personally, as a UK citizen living in another EU country, I feel ignored by her policies and embarrassed by her government. Never in the short span of my political awareness have I felt less represented by those in power in London.

Best friends.

To The Polling Stations!

It might now seem strange, after all this, when I say that I am not in fact going to vote for Labour. My home constituency, where I will be voting by proxy, is in Scotland. And Scotland, for better or worse, is a whole different kettle of fish. The vocally pro-European SNP has swallowed much of the Labour vote, with the result that the election has successfully been presented as a two-horse race between the SNP and the Conservatives. While my admiration for the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson rose during the EU Referendum campaign, in which she lacerated B*ris J*hnson for lying to the British public, her decision to now toe the Tory party line on Brexit is lamentable. Though my views on Europe are best represented by the Lib Dems, the polls do not suggest that they will do well. A vote for Labour, meanwhile, risks splitting the so-called progressive vote, and letting the Conservatives in “by the back door”.

From here in Brussels at least, it has long felt as if the loudest pro-European voice in the UK is Nicola Sturgeon’s. A minority Labour government supported by a pro-European alliance of the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems seems to me like the best possible outcome. It is for this reason that I will be casting my vote tomorrow for the SNP.

Save us Nicola! The voice of reason on 24 June last year.

R.

Brexit: A Case of Mid-life Crisis?

It occurred to me the other day as I was thinking about Brexit (as I often am) that Brexit is not unlike a case of mid-life crisis.

Britain, everyone’s favourite former imperial power, had been in a marriage for some time now, from which the spark had gone out. It is a problem that probably occurs in many marriages. And most married people will probably suffer a bout of existential angst, before deciding that on reflection sticking with a secure, comfortable (if no-longer-sexy) marriage is probably preferable to casting oneself once more upon the world of dating, with the risk of rejection, loneliness and dying alone being chewed by Alsatians, while the rest of the family gets on with their lives.

52% voted for spinsterhood and Alsatians.

The UK is the husband who, in his forties, flexes his saggy pecs in the mirror and says to himself “you know what, I’m still fuckable”, and then ditches his wife and family, buys a leather jacket, and starts hanging out in dodgy bars in the hope of picking up a younger model.

“I’ve wasted the best years of my life on you,” says Britain to the EU. “Trump, Duterte and King Salman of Saudi Arabia still want to fuck me, and they’re way sexier than you, so you can take this marriage and shove it!” Britain then straddles its motorbike and zooms off into the desert with King Salman on the back seat, whispering sweet nothings into its ear.

Liam Fox has butterflies in his stomach as he shakes hands with President Rodrigo ‘The Punisher’ Duterte of the Philippines.

It remains to be seen how this solo gambit will pan out. But the UK might well be warned that just because someone has their hand down your trousers doesn’t mean that they’re marriage material.

Following the established pattern, the UK quickly starts looking up its former flames in the hope of rekindling what, through the prism of nostalgia, seem like the missed opportunities of the past. To this end, Philip Hammond went off to Southeast Asia to try to convince India that what we had in the past was really good, baby, and we can have it all again if you want it. We can call it Empire 2.0, I mean True Love 2.0, I mean Global Britain. We can have the strong and stable relationship we never had.

Theresa May eagerly clasps the strong and stable hand of President Donald ‘Grab em by the pussy’ Trump.

Needless to say, India told him where to go. India had moved on with its life.

And so the quest for new romances continues. Maybe the UK just hasn’t been hanging out in the right bars yet. Nobody said it would be easy, right? But true love is surely just around the corner…

“Come get me, world.” Yep, Britain’s still got it.

The only hope is that, when the UK comes grovelling back, bruised and humiliated by its unrequited romantic advances, the EU is prepared to give us a second chance.

R.

An Epistolary Spat

It is interesting to know that in this day and age politicians still indulge in the exchange of epistles. There have of course been some changes since Biblical times. Nowadays important letters invariably appear online rather than in print. Such was the case in this week’s spat between Donald Tusk and Justin Tomlinson MP.

Tomlinson and around 80 other MPs had taken it upon themselves to inform the European Council, or the Commission, or whoever else would take notice, of their outrage that the EU seemed ‘worryingly indifferent to securing reciprocal rights for our and your resident citizens’. This, they felt, was causing ‘anxiety and uncertainty for the UK and EU citizens living in one another’s territories’. An interesting argument, Mr Tomlinson; thanks for bringing it up. I will address it with the following points.

Justin Tomlinson MP - defender of my rights, I think not.

Justin Tomlinson MP – defender of my rights, I think not.

First of all, as a UK citizen (and currently very much still an EU citizen) living in an EU territory, I must presume that I am one of the people whose interests Mr Tomlinson is trying to defend. I should therefore like to point out to him that ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ are nothing new to UK citizens living on EU territory. I for one have been experiencing ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, my levels of anxiety and uncertainty were markedly lower before 24 June 2016. Furthermore, I am very sure about who I blame for my current state of uncertainty, and it certainly is not the European Union.

Secondly, Mr Tomlinson et al. express concern at the EU’s ‘worrying indifference’ towards the rights of the EU’s resident UK citizens. I wholeheartedly agree that there has been an overabundance of ‘worrying indifference’ regarding the question of Brexit; however, I was (and am) far more concerned about the worrying indifference that the Leave campaign, and ultimately the British electorate, showed towards not only the safeguarding of my rights as a UK citizen abroad, but also towards issues such as Northern Ireland’s border, the value of the pound, and various other looming calamities. Therefore I do not think it is the EU that has shown the most callous indifference.

As I’ve written before: prior to Brexit, my rights as a UK citizen on the European mainland were settled. Now, they are very much in question. This is a state of being which was brought about solely by the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016. The EU has not thrown my rights, nor the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, into question; British voters have.

Thankfully Donald Tusk has pointed this out. On 29 November 2016 he wrote a reply to Tomlinson et al., and asked ‘Would you not agree that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit?’ The UK has put itself, and its citizens living abroad, into the situation in which we now find ourselves. I do not believe the EU owes the UK anything over Brexit, and is rightly concerned about the rights of its own citizens living in the UK. The MPs who wrote the letter seem unhappy that UK citizens abroad will be used as ‘bargaining chips’; but let us not forget that it was our own Secretary of State for International Trade who referred to EU citizens in the UK as ‘one of our main cards’ in the Brexit negotiations. We were not bargaining chips before 24 June.

It is the recklessness of the Leave campaign, the results of the vote on 23 June, and the embarrassing actions of the Conservative government since then that have brought the EU’s internal emigrants into this state of anxiety and uncertainty. Any attempt to shift the blame for this onto the EU is duplicitous and shameful.

R.

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?’

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.