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.

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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.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, my fellow Europhiles. Or as they say here: Gelukkig Nieuwjaar and Bonne Année! What does 2018 hold for us in terms of Brexit? Will we have our cake? Will we eat it? Does anyone know?

I’ve been quiet on the blog of late. Mostly because, surprisingly, no one in Brussels tends to share confidential Brexit details with me. Nobody has sidled up to me in bars to whisper European secrets into my ear. As such, I don’t really have much to share except my own views and opinions. But that, of course, is why online blogs were invented!

Farage, Davis and Barnier

You have to feel for poor Michel Barnier. On Monday he had a meeting with Nigel Farage here in Brussels. Farage’s stated aim was to put across the views of the 17.4million Leave voters, whom he feared were not being represented in the negotiations. Strange. Mostly I’ve felt like it’s ONLY the views of the Leave voters that are being represented in the negotiations. The view of most Remainers, probably, would be not to have any negotiations at all.

Afterwards, Farage stood outside the Berlaymont building wearing a naff hat, and gave his account of how the meeting had gone. Mr Barnier, he claimed, didn’t understand why Brexit was happening, and was ‘surprised’ to hear that the main reason people voted for Brexit was because of EU migrants to the UK. And you know what? Nigel is probably right on that. It is worth reminding ourselves that a huge factor in the success of the Leave campaign was xenophobia. Global Britain, I think not.

In this disturbing image, Nigel Fartage (left) is wearing a hat.

The other crumb of Brexit news is David Davis’s leaked letter to Theresa May, complaining that the EU is warning British companies about the risks of a no-deal scenario. The EU has warned businesses to prepare for Britain being a ‘third country’ (i.e. not an EU member state) as of March next year. ‘This is discrimination!’ says Davis.

Pardon? Didn’t the UK vote to be a third country? Why is he surprised?

The EU is doing what the UK should in fact be doing, and preparing for all eventualities. Theresa May has repeatedly threatened to walk away without a deal if the negotiations don’t go well. Excuse the EU for taking her seriously and preparing for just such an outcome.

But what does my opinion matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to David Davis.

I’ll just have to content myself with reading Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit and sending fan mail to Anna Soubry.

The Remainers’ Bible

R.

 

Eurospeak: Foreseeing the Glash

I was reading about Brexit on the Guardian the other day (as I often am). And who should I stumble across but my dear friend Guy Verhofstadt? You may remember he sent me a very kind email to say that he was doing everything to protect my future.

Anyway, in the Guardian he was suggesting that Theresa May would make an intervention around 21st September which could delay the Brexit negotiations. What is she going to announce? Has she discovered she has an Irish granny? Guy Verhofstadt said:

Apparently there will be an important intervention by the British prime minister in the coming days, it is foreseen on the 21 September.

Brexit aside, one aspect of his statement couldn’t escape my notice. You may have heard of ‘Eurospeak’ – that strange mix of English, French and jargon in which employees of the EU institutions become fluent. Other former trainees have also written quite savagely on the topic of ‘Eurospeak’. ‘Foreseen’ is a common example of Eurospeak.

“Verhofstadt. Guy Verhofstadt.”

At every meeting I’ve attended, somebody has used the word ‘foreseen’ in a way that an English native speaker would not. ‘Our next meeting is foreseen for next Tuesday,’ for example. My guess is that this is a direct translation from the French ‘prévu’, meaning ‘planned’. Or, indeed, a direct translation from the Dutch ‘voorzien’ (Guy Verhofstadt is Flemish). In which case, whenever an EU politician or bureaucrat says ‘foreseen’, he or she probably means ‘planned’.

However, in the first few weeks I thought that nobody knew for sure when the next meeting would be, but that someone had ‘foreseen’ Tuesday as the most likely date whilst gazing into their crystal ball. The first weeks of my traineeship were spent in confusion.

The Joy of Being an English Speaker

Harmless infractions against the English language are just one of the joys of being an English native speaker abroad. Whether you work at the European Commission, or at any company where the majority are not native English speakers, your command of English instantly assigns you the role of ‘chief proofreader’. Colleagues are generally willing to accept your opinion on what is and what isn’t correct English.

The chief proofreader receives another proofreading request.

It is not all plain sailing though. Sometimes your advice is received, and then discarded.

In times gone by I used to work for an online fashion retailer in Germany, where my job was to write descriptions of shoes in English (in retrospect, one of the best jobs I ever had). One day, the company was preparing to launch a new fashion range, and the managers decided to come up with a creative English-sounding name to market it. They asked the small group of UK employees whether they should call the new range ‘Glash’.

The German managers had clearly never seen an episode The Inbetweeners. As such, they were oblivious to the hilarity that this label would cause to their British customers. They didn’t see the problem.

The Inbetweeners. A UK cultural institution.

However, to the members of the UK shoe-description team, the horrible repercussions of releasing ‘Glash’ upon the UK market were very much ‘foreseen’.

But who knows? Maybe after Brexit, European companies won’t bother trying to market things to us at all.

R.

Summer is Over

Hello all! It’s been a while since my last post on Brexit and Brussels. Which is not to say that I haven’t been keeping a close eye on Brexit developments. However, even the most die-hard of Brexit commentators needs a break for the sake of their sanity. I have spent the summer running through fields of wheat, and doing other things similarly naughty.

Due to its lack of wheatfields, I have spent the past few weeks outside of Brussels. As an Interimaire, I’m contractually required to take an unpaid month off after every 5 or 6 months of work. This is supposedly to protect Interimaires from being shamelessly exploited by unscrupulous employers, since it is annoying for said employers to be short-staffed every 5 or 6 months. I think the idea is that the employers are therefore supposed to give Interimaires a more permanent contract. In practice though…

Still, a month off is not to be sniffed at.

Write in if you can spot Theresa May

Summer Round-up

The big Brexit news of the moment has to be Labour’s change of stance, with the Party now supporting UK membership of the Single Market and Customs Union during a transitional period, with the possibility of permanent membership if they can get the EU to agree on reforms to freedom of movement.

As readers of this blog will know, I have not been the biggest fan of Labour’s response to Brexit up to now. Labour’s ambiguous line on Brexit was the main reason I voted for the more vocally pro-EU SNP in the June general election. Infuriatingly, it has taken the Party over a year to stake out a position that is distinct from the Conservatives’, probably out of fear of alienating pro-Brexit Labour voters. But, as Toby Helm writes in The Observer, it has probably now dawned on the Labour leadership that the young voters who supported Labour in June are largely Remainers. As Toby points out, Labour is now the party of ‘soft Brexit’. (That is to say, it is the largest party of soft Brexit. The Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and other small parties have been screaming in the wilderness for a soft Brexit for over a year.)

Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn loitering outside my office earlier this year

This is all well and good, but the fact is that we still have a Tory-DUP government which will be doing the negotiating, and I doubt they’ll be willing to call another general election anytime soon just because the Labour Party has come up with a more attractive alternative to the May-Davis cliff edge scenario. Speaking of which, David Davis is back here in Brussels tomorrow, for all the good that it’ll do any of us.

Contact Form

Today, for the first time in several months, I checked the email address which is linked to this blog. I apologise for not doing so sooner, because one or two readers have written to me, mostly asking for advice about doing a traineeship at the Commission. Or more specifically, asking whether there’s any point applying for it if you’re a UK citizen.

My answer to these enquiries is yes, there is definitely a lot of point in applying. While the UK is still a member state, UK applicants should be assessed under the same criteria as applications from other EU nationalities. My guess is that the EU will not want to discourage the interest of young Brits in the European Union by turning down their traineeship applications out of hand. So go for it, and good luck!

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission’s application website. It can be this good!

Some Light Relief

Somebody has remixed Theresa May’s story about running naughtily through fields of wheat. The addition of a sick beat somehow makes it very watchable.

Cheers,

R.

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.