EUROPEAN CONSCIENCE - The Brexit lessons

It’s ironic that in the country that has always opposed integration they're now finding out what it means to be an EU citizen

A demonstration against Brexit in Liverpool. REUTERS/Contrasto/Phil Noble
A demonstration against Brexit in Liverpool. REUTERS/Contrasto/Phil Noble

London, summer 2018. On a sunny Saturday morning, sixty or so Spaniards meet in a hall that looks onto a courtyard in Portobello Road. While tourists throng around the famous market, the Coalition of Spaniards in London (Coalicion de Españoles en Londres) is organising a meeting with an embassy representative. The subject of the discussion: returning to Spain after Brexit. It would seem simple, but there are many questions to be answered. Can I keep the unemployment benefit I receive in England? I haven't always been employed, will I still have a right to a pension? For how long will my current health card be valid?

A few weeks later on the ninth floor of a building near Euston station this time there's a meeting of a group of the3million, an association whose name refers to the three million European residents in the United Kingdom. The subject of the conversation is pretty similar, but the approach is very different. This time the discussion is about the rights to be fought for in the coming months. How can one check that no one gets a rough deal because of Brexit? How does one get one's right to vote acknowledged? Will someone be left out of the European elections?

Not a week goes by in the United Kingdom without meetings, events and debates on what will change after Brexit. The EU commission has funded a series of events to explain to European residents their rights. And the Mayor of London, that hosts one million people from other EU countries, has launched an information programme on the subject and embassies, associations and legal firms are doing their bit.

It's almost ironic that the country that has always opposed European integration, is now suddenly developing an awareness of what it means to be a European citizen. Regardless of how the Brexit issue pans out, the agreement that has been negotiated between Brussels and London has set down on paper the kind of assistance we receive when transferring from one European country to another.

The agreement states that the over three million Europeans living in the United Kingdom and the one and a half million Britons living in the rest of Europe shall retain the right to live, study and work in their respective countries without any form of discrimination, they shall have access to health and pensions system and all social security dues paid in different EU countries where they've worked will be totted up. Even their professional qualification will be recognised as will their right to be reunited with one's partner or family members while avoiding the costly bureaucratic procedures endured by citizens of third party countries, as well access to the health systems of the other EU countries for temporary visits. This set of rights is what transfers the principle of "free circulation of people" into reality.

But the negotiations have not safeguarded all the current benefits. British residents in the rest of Europe will only have their rights recognised in the country where they currently reside, without automatic freedom of movement throughout the rest of Europe. Unless otherwise agreed in the future, they will not be entitled to provide services in other EU countries as independent workers. They will also have lost their right to return to their country of origin with partners from third countries under the more favourable EU regime (the United Kingdom has one of the strictest laws in Europe regarding family reunification), or the right to take part in local and European elections and the right to present legislative initiatives to the EU Commission. As for the Europeans in the United Kingdom, they will have to make an application and pass a security vetting system in order to retain residence, they shall lose the automatic right to return and establish residence in the country after a 5 year absence, and the right to family reunification based on European regulations for relationships begun after Brexit.

"We've never understood how fundamental the rights that stem from the free circulation of people were to our lives. We have always taken them for granted", says Axel Antoni, a German business consultant who has become a the3million activist. "In earlier times an English friend asked me why I hadn't applied for a British passport. I replied that I didn't need one, seeing as I had the same rights. After Brexit I discovered that wasn't true. One becomes aware of ones rights when one needs them most or risks losing them, and this is our current predicament".

Brexit also affects those who are not meaning to move to another EU country on a permanent basis, but is going there just on holiday. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom have published dozens of notices to prepare people and companies on what will happen if no agreement is struck. Hundreds of pages explain the consequences of the introduction of border controls, limitations on the quantity of cash, tobacco, alcoholic beverages and perfumes one may carry without declaring them or paying customs duties, and the need to apply for an international driving license and a green card to insure the car to be able to drive in other EU countries. On holiday with your dog? The European passport for domestic animals is no longer valid and vaccination certificates will have to be produced before each trip. No free access to public health services abroad thanks to the European health card, nor diplomatic protection from other EU states where one's own country has no representation. There's also an issue regarding consumer protection, for example on reimbursements for delayed or cancelled flights or the ban on charges for credit card payments, the cancellation of international roaming costs for mobile phone calls and the possibility of accessing one's own TV subscriptions via streaming when travelling in Europe.

Consumer right, as it turns out, also affect those who stay in their own country. European directives on the right to cancel a purchase of a good or service, but also on air quality, employer status, privacy protection and food safety will no longer be guaranteed in the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly immediately after Brexit there was talk of trade agreements with the United States that would allow imports of chlorinated chicken, which cannot be sold in the EU.

For companies the situation is even more complex because what future relations will look like is not yet known. The negotiations on the Kingdom's exit has so far focused on the protection of existing contracts and intellectual property rights. But faced with an uncertain future, the major companies, in the banking or airline sector for example, have taken steps to set up offices and operating authorisations in both the European Union and the United Kingdom. Smaller concerns are instead trying to understand the consequences related to issues like the payment of VAT or the difficulty in receiving settlements in the event of insolvencies.

Even on these points information campaigns have been launched at various levels. The Spanish and Dutch governments, for example, are working on a programme that is specially designed to for smaller companies. Ireland has set aside funds to help companies prepare for the new set up and the government of the Flanders has opened a specialised help-desk and is asking the European Union to fund further assistance. Paradoxically, over and beyond how events will pan out in the coming years, Brexit seems to have achieved at least one important goal: it has opened the door to in depth communication on how Europe actually works.

@Claudiacomms

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