A flying visit to Brussels

The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels © Ricky Yates

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.

12 comments to A flying visit to Brussels

  • Pauleen Bang

    Great stuff, Ricky. If you are on Twitter, please tweet a link to this. If not, I can do it, if you wish.

  • Pauleen Bang

    Have retweeted. Have you seen that the Anglican Communion have also picked up on this (seen on Twitter). We need a hashtag for this. Any suggestions?

    • Ricky

      Hi again Pauleen – I’ve edited the post to include a second link to the Anglican Communion News article. #ExpatBrexit is the hashtag.

  • Charles Howie

    Sorry to hear this effort was less productive than the journey you made deserved, Ricky, but maybe it reflects the ‘make it up as we go along’ style of government’ we are caught up in right now. The responsible, or rather the irresponsible, person you should address your complaints to are the previous Prime Minister. David Cameron asked voters to choose between two options, but only prepared for the outcome going in one direction-he would win and there would be no change. It will go down in history as a major fiasco.

    • Ricky

      I concur entirely with you, Charles, regarding David Cameron. He promised the referendum to avoid MPs defecting to UKIP or losing seats to UKIP. Now the Conservative Party has morphed into UKIP 🙁

  • An excellent post, Ricky, and I share your frustration on behalf of EU friends in the UK also. Have tweeted this.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, Perpetua! Very nice to have you back here and commenting 😉

      I completely agree with you about the uncertainty and frustration of EU nationals living & working in the UK. Their feelings and sensitivities are very similar to mine & those of UK nationals in my congregation, and in Anglican congregations across my diocese. Unfortunately, all of us are going to be left living in limbo-land, for at least another two years.

      The Czech government is very clear about Brexit. Their first & foremost priority is the safety and security of Czech nationals living & working in the UK. Would that the UK government had as much concern about their citizens living in the other 27 EU member states.

  • A very interesting post, Ricky. I am trying hard to grip the core of these events. When Mrs May held her speech the other day, it really dawned on me what this can actually lead to. I was under the impression that she never voted for the Brexit, but was put to set it in motion nevertheless. It seems she took that mission very seriously indeed, by the very letter!!

    I really hope there will be some light to guide the way for your sake, it’s no great feeling being held as “card.” I suppose they know just as little as anyone, this is an entirely new situation so negotiations is a solid phrase to use when you have no clue of what to expect of the future.

    This concerns me partly for your sake and others in your situation, the Czech government is holding a tight line here.

    As for my own part I have always had a dream about living somewhere in the UK, perhaps working as well. Our girls are now holding the same wishful thinking, we’ll see about that. I fear more countries will follow, what then?

    I will keep you in thought and prayer, Ricky, keep your hope and faith!

    • Ricky

      Hello Solveig – thank you for once more visiting and commenting. You are quite right in what you say in your first paragraph. Theresa May voted ‘Remain’ but, having been made party leader and Prime Minister, has decided that the expressed wish of 37% of the British electorate in an advisory referendum is a ‘democratic decision’ which has to implemented 🙁

      Thank you too, for your expressions of concern about my situation. I certainly do not like being regarded as a ‘card’ rather than as a human being.

      The freedom for people, especially young people like your girls, to live, study or work in another EU member state is so valuable and that loss will be felt especially by British young people. However I do believe that the mess that the UK will get into, will dissuade any other country from even thinking about doing the same thing.

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,
    Looking at recent events involving Britain and now the USA it makes me sad and afraid that most people seem to have forgotten their history, if they ever learned it. We seem to be in a time warp and emerging into the early 1930’s once more. How quickly we have gone from respecting human rights and freedoms as equal citizens of Earth to the evil of ‘them and us’ – the slippery slope is very near once again I fear. Our youngest son has some friends from the UK on his college course at present and they are all shocked at the ‘Brexit fiasco’ and the possibility they are condemned to ‘Alien status’ in Ireland before their course is even complete. They are all Europhiles and voted remain; They feel they’ve been betrayed by the majority of their parents and grandparents generations. When will the ‘elected representatives’ of all nations learn to represent their electorates? Thank you Ricky and good luck to all in Limbo-land.

    • Ricky

      Hi Sean – thank you both visiting and commenting once again. As usual, I find myself in complete agreement with what you say. The parallels with the 1930s are quite frightening. Blaming a group of people for a country’s problems – Muslims and Mexicans in the USA, hard-working migrants from Central & Eastern Europe in the UK – and trying to suppress the press & media in the USA & the appalling racist headlines in the UK’s Daily Mail & Daily Express.

      Your youngest son’s UK friends are correct. It was predominantly middle-aged & older white ‘little Englanders’ who voted leave. If Brexit happens, it will be younger generation who will be left to suffer the consequences. Sadly, I and many others are going to remain living in limbo-land for sometime to come.