Brussels – From proverbial backstops to queue-jumpers and trade, Brexit is all the rage these days. Yet the British Eurocrats that have worked up front and personal within the EU for years find themselves in an opaque golden cage. Over a thousand strong, many are scrambling to salvage a career and life where they will have to leave Brussels before long. But the rules are vague and the eventual outcome unclear, how do they personally deal with the limbo of the coming Brexit year?
There are 1,262 British nationals currently working in EU institutions. Roughly 70 percent of them are employed by the European Commission, a quarter by the European Parliament and the rest by the Council. Barring a sudden, miraculous British turnaround towards Remain, most if not all of those working in the Parliament and Council will become unemployed once the 29th of March rolls around and the transition period kicks off.
Those working for the Commission enjoy the highest amount of certainty as to their situation. Existing jobs will remain unless explicitly asked to resign in cases of ‘conflicts of interest or international obligations.’ These will be examined on a case-by-case basis as was explained by Budget and Human Resources Commissioner Günther Oettinger in an internal email briefing and has since been confirmed to Euroscope by Andreana Stankova, Press Officer for the Directorate General of Budget and Human Resources. Chris is one example of such a case.
“I have lived, loved and lost in Brussels. I’m not keen on leaving. For at least thirty years the EU has been the leitmotiv to my life. I remember being beside myself with anger and grief the day my homeland rejected it in the referendum,” says Chris Kendall, employed by the European Commission as the Coordinator of the Commissioners’ Group for External Action and Foreign Policy under High Representative Mogherini.
Having entered the EU through the ‘velvet faucet’ of the European Fast Stream in the early 90’s – a civil service program specifically created to help increase the UK’s presence in the EU – he has seen Berlaymont’s inner workings from top to bottom.
His outspoken position on the issue is unique. There aren’t many British staffers walking the halls of the Commission that tout such a candid anti-Brexit stance. Most hold fast to the age-old British tradition of the stiff upper lip, stoic in the face of adversity. Not Kendall though.
“A few of my British colleagues believe that I’m propagandizing for the EU, but most respond with an understanding nod. It’s exactly because I full-heartedly believe in the European project, flaws and all, that I’m doing all of this.” A reference to his active Twitter account and the weekly podcast CakeWatch he hosts together with former colleague and co-expat Steve Bullock on the phenomenon of Cakeism: the philosophy of having your cake and eating it.
“To clarify, I’m saying and doing all of my own volition. I am in no way speaking on behalf of the Commission,” Kendall emphasizes. His viewpoint isn’t shared by everyone though. He has faced tough criticism. “Every argument I’ve ever had with a Brexiteer boils down to an issue of identity. They’ll say that the EU can’t possibly be democratic because there is no homogenous European identity. However they fail to see that identity in and of itself is rich and multifaceted. I’m British, a Londoner, a Brusselaar and European. I’m all of that, and as of recently, also German.”
The latest Eurostat statistics (2016) show that the largest relative increase regarding the acquisition of citizenship of an EU Member State, was for UK citizens. The number more than doubled from 2,478 people in 2015 to 6,555 people in 2016. The figures for 2017 are expected to be even higher.
Number of Brits requesting citizenship in a EU27 country
A significant portion of UK citizens have felt the need to seek out a safe haven, while the storm is still brewing on the horizon. Coincidentally, a similar trend can be found specifically in the data of the HR Department of the European Commission. From 1,046 British staff members in 2017 to 917 in 2018.
Jean-Paul Soyer, Secretary-General of Union For Unity (U4U) a trade union that represents staff across the EU institutions, reaffirms these numbers. “The British withdrawal is very difficult and taxing for the staff. They’re understandably anxious after having invested a lot into their lives here, they deserve official information. As such we urge the Commission to inform the individual staff members on their decision as soon as possible. Most of the workers with temporary contracts (e.g. experts, advisors, translators,…) for example have absolutely no idea what their fate will be.”
Furthermore, according to Soyer about 20 to 30 percent of British staffers took up a second nationality. Relying on an Irish ancestor for that purpose, or applying for dual-citizenship in a EU27 country.
But is it truly necessary to pre-emptively jump ship like this?
“Unfortunately yes, since Prime-Minister May has quintessentially failed to deliver on her promise of citizens’ rights,” Laura Shields responds. A British entrepreneur located in Brussels and spokesperson of the largest coalition group of British citizens living and working in Europe: BIE or British In Europe. Shields is referring to the promise PM May laid out in her Florence speech in 2017, wherein Brits residing in the EU and vice versa would be able to ‘carry on living in the exact same way’ as pre-Brexit.
“Our biggest concern lies in the loss of the freedom of movement. A survey of our members indicated that over 70 percent of them move across borders regularly for work, not to mention family and personal situations.” The current Brexit transition deal which has been agreed upon between the EU27 and the UK does not provide freedom of movement or labour for UK citizens. Instead, it entails ‘visa-free travel’.
In clearer terms, UK citizens will not be able to live, work, or study inside the EU27 without a visa from that specific country during the transition period. “The best way to envision it, is how I explain it to my kids: Imagine having to fill out a form every time you want to move from the kitchen to the living room, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. It’s absurd, but as it stands, it might become a detrimental reality.”
Shields feels British expats have been force fed a bitter dish. Sixty percent of Brits in Europe weren’t eligible to vote in the 2016 referendum since they weren’t born on British soil, or had left for a period longer than 15 years.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Richard Corbett, Labour Leader in the European Parliament (S&D) laments the ease with which the UK is willing to throw away decades of work over national political disputes. “Just a few days ago we commemorated the Great War. Contrary to what Brexiteers will say, everlasting peace has not been ‘cemented by now’. It’s an ongoing operation, and we owe the EU a lot for that.”
As president of the Young European Federalist during his student years, Corbett also has a soft spot for the brashness of youth. “British youngsters under 30 might never be able to go on Erasmus, live abroad or thrive in the upcoming gig-economy. Their situation gets overlooked far too often. We need a second referendum. A final say for all.”
Dave Carnegie from Gloucester is one of those youngsters. Unable to afford British university tuition fees, he moved to the Netherlands and enrolled in Leiden University at the local rates. His education included semesters in Germany, France and Oxford which eventually landed him a job in a European institution.
However, with Brexit around the corner, a glass ceiling has appeared, impeding his future career.
“I know for a fact 7 percent of top EU officials and diplomats were British. A fair amount considering there are 28 countries. Or were rather… All that sway we held up there will disappear. I might have to look for something else, but I’m grateful to Europe for giving me the opportunity to get that education and all the benefits I reaped from it. I can only hope future generations will retain these options.”
The draft for the Withdrawal Agreement has been approved by the European Council. Along with the £39bn divorce deal and the Irish border issue, citizens’ rights were also outlined for the duration of the transition period. However it is far from a done deal. All of the above hinges on the premise that the deal will be accepted by the British Parliament.
The ball finds itself firmly in Prime Minister May’s court. If she is not able to push the bill through the House of Commons, Britain risks entering uncharted waters into No Deal territory. Even regarding citizens’ rights. Worst case scenario: UK nationals and EU citizens might find themselves becoming third-country nationals, or ‘illegal immigrants’ if you will, overnight.
A more plausible scenario might be a people’s vote or a ‘flash renegotiation’. Nevertheless, nothing is certain. For now though, and for some time to come, citizens of the United Kingdom living in Europe will continue finding themselves in between a solitary rock and a European place.
Euroscope contacted the offices of UKIP MEPs Gerard Batten, Nigel Farage and Patrick O’Flynn for a response to this article, but none were found willing. Here is an article written by our colleagues at Politico highlighting a Brexiteer’s point of view on leaving Brussels.
Courtesy of Daily Mail UK