On Wednesday 18th January, I spent a very long day, travelling to Brussels and back. It involved getting up at 04.00 in the morning and eventually getting back to the Chaplaincy Flat at midnight.
I did so, in order to attend a meeting to ‘discuss concerns and priorities in relation to the Brexit process’, with Lord George Bridges of Headley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union – in other words, the Junior Minister at the Brexit Department. The meeting had been set up by my Diocesan Bishop Robert, ably assisted by his sidekick David Fieldsend, and it is to their joint credit that the minister agreed to it in the first place. I was one of seventeen British people, both clergy and laity, drawn from our chaplaincies in EU countries within the Diocese in Europe, who were invited to Brussels for the meeting.
Unfortunately, on Monday 16th January came the news that, because Prime Minister Theresa May was making a major speech about Brexit the next day, all ministers had to remain in London on Wednesday 18th January, in order to be available to answer parliamentary questions. Therefore, instead of meeting with the minister in person for a two hour discussion, he joined us by video link. This also meant the meeting being moved from the Chapter Room of our Pro-Cathedral, to the British Embassy.
Then, soon after the video discussion got going on our first issue of pensions and finance, the minister had to leave us and go to answer questions in the House of Lords. He promised to return for the latter part of our two-hour time slot, but never did. Apparently their Lordships had lots of questions for him and whilst he was on his feet, it was announced that on the following Tuesday, the Supreme Court would give its judgement on the activating Article 50 case, prompting yet more questions.
Whilst I do appreciate that government ministers need to answer parliamentary questions, I did think it was pretty poor that when seventeen of us had travelled from far-flung parts of the EU, most of us like me, at our own expense, we only got about twenty minutes of the minister’s time. I fear that it does reflect the fact that the fate of the 1.2 million British nationals living in the other twenty-seven EU member states, are not so high up the priority list of issues of the current British government.
In the absence of Lord Bridges, the British Ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose, along with Emma Gibbons, Deputy Head of Mission at the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, fielded our questions. Various embassy staff sat in the background taking notes and civil servants were also listening in from London and assured us that the concerns we were expressing, would be fed back to Lord Bridges.
The issues we raised with the UK government come under four main headings – Pensions & Finance, Healthcare & Social Security Cover, Recruitment & Retention of UK Clergy in the Diocese in Europe, Citizenship/Identity/Voting Rights. I have to say that we didn’t get any actual answers to any of our questions. It was always, ‘this will be a subject for negotiation’ with the additional, ‘the negotiations will be highly complex’. Several times I wanted to point out that there is a simple answer for the UK government to all of them – don’t try and leave the EU!
My ordained colleagues working in France and Spain, where many elderly UK citizens have settled in retirement, spoke of mental health problems amongst these members of their congregations, unsure whether they will lose their access to free healthcare once the UK leaves the EU. They are already suffering from the drop in value of their pensions as a result of the serious fall in the value of Sterling, following the June referendum. Many cannot afford to return to the UK and, even if they have to, would they still be eligible to receive NHS care?
The impact on people with EU spouses/partners and their children was highlighted. Will they be able to return and settle in the UK with their British husband/wife/father/mother, or will families be split? The current UK government’s obsession is with immigration, rather the than the well-being of individuals and families.
I particularly raised the issue of the language used by two government ministers who have described EU nationals living and working in the UK as ‘cards’ and as ‘bargaining chips’. By inference, that is what we UK nationals living in the other twenty-seven EU member states are too. No! we are all individuals, made in the image of God and to be valued as such – not to be regarded as mere ‘cards’ or as ‘bargaining chips’ in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Bishop Robert’s wife Helen, took comprehensive notes of our discussions which were immediately circulated to all participants the following day. The fact that Ambassador Rose has since asked for the slight re-wording and expansion of a few points to fully clarify what was said, does seem to me that we are being taken seriously, for which I am thankful. However, I still fear that our concerns may well be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit, as the UK chooses to become a lonely island, floating in the North Atlantic Ocean 🙁
PS There is now a report about the meeting on the Diocese in Europe website here. In the second photograph, you can see the back of my balding head on the right-hand side of the table 🙂 A further report can be found on the Anglican Communion News website.