Report from FCO public event for UK Citizens in Germany
Düsseldorf, Wednesday 30th August
Like many people of my generation I have taken the freedoms of the EU for granted throughout my adult life, choosing to live and work in Germany, while travelling freely whenever I wanted to visit friends and family in Scotland and beyond.
It certainly did not seem “exotic” or unusual to meet and marry my German husband, whom I met during his time as an ERASMUS exchange student in the English town where I was working in the mid 90s.
Back then, and even up until just a few years ago, neither of us could ever have imagined the horror we would feel when confronted with “Brexit”, which now threatens our family life and home.
With that concern in mind, on Wednesday 30th August I attended a public meeting in Düsseldorf, organised by “British In Europe”, (a coalition of different British migrant organisations), and hosted by the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), the UK Consul General, and the First secretary of the British Embassy in Berlin.
The meeting was attended by around 100 UK citizens, all sharing similar concerns and looking for some clarity on the prospective journey ahead to the completion of Brexit, and what it means for our lives, families, jobs, etc.
The event was extremely well organised and no expense had been spared in the venue and refreshments, but nothing could detract from the overwhelming sense of nervousness among my fellow attendees.
I concede I entered the meeting with some bias; convinced that all I would hear would be baseless reassurances from FCO representatives that everything was fine, that Britain would be getting a great deal out of Brexit, and there was no need for any “expats”, or EU citizens in the UK, to be concerned or write to their MPs. Despite my bias however, the atmosphere was far tenser than I had expected.
The meeting opened with a presentation by Daniel Tetlow, a representative of British in Europe (and “British in Germany”) who explained how the group is working together with a central committee to highlight citizens’ rights in the Brexit process.
While the group actively campaign to protect and guarantee the rights of British citizens in Europe, and EU citizens in the UK, they have also provided evidence in consultations for the EU, including Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt.
At the last count its membership had increased to over 35,000 and after the Düsseldorf meeting, I am certain there will be 100 more names on their list.
When UK Consul General in Düsseldorf, Mr. Rafe Courage, took the floor on behalf of the UK government he briefed us on the progress of the Brexit negotiations. He gave us a very detailed briefing, such that we could never have gleaned from any newspapers or other media, concerned with meaningless political point scoring as they are.
The mass of information shared was somewhat overwhelming, but it was still possible to make out some very disquieting subtexts.
Namely, that there is a very great deal of negotiating to be done and not much time before March 2019 when it all has to be signed off.
The issue of Citizens’ Rights is only one part of the puzzle, and it alone is a huge amount of material. In addition, there is a mountain of issues I had never even thought about, like pensions, healthcare, travel between European countries, legal representation…. I can’t even remember them all. It will not be possible for everything to be discussed or agreed upon; Many areas of concern will be left out, but even something as simple as a list of what will and will not be included is so far not forthcoming.
Also, worryingly, there are many areas of concern within citizens’ rights which are not being discussed at the negotiations at all for several reasons:
Firstly, something that is not on the table is the future relationship between the EU and the UK; only the actual closing deal is being negotiated.
What this means was difficult to interpret, but it needs to be considered.
Secondly there are several other issues, like multiple citizenships, freedom to live in one EU country and work in another, voting rights and other matters which were not discussed, which cannot be negotiated at all, as they fall within the laws of individual countries (specifically, some countries do not allow dual citizenships, or only allow with specific countries under very specific circumstance).
The second half of the meeting allowed for attendees to direct questions to the Consul General and First Secretary of the British Embassy.
Very quickly it became apparent that we were in a room full of frightened, angry people. The attendees had listened carefully, quietly, and politely during the first half of the meeting, but now, one by one we stood up, and voiced our concerns to the government representatives.
To be fair to them, they tried their utmost to answer our queries, and were always patient and courteous, taking time with each person, and doing their best in what must have been a fairly uncomfortable situation, as while some of the questions could be answered, many could not, and an increasing sense of dread settled over the room.
When at last the meeting was called to a close, an audience member rose to his feet and asked for a show of hands whether we agreed that the government was making a terrible mistake. As I looked around the room at that moment it seemed every single person had raised their hand.
In speaking with other attendees afterwards, the consensus was one of dismay and dissent against Brexit, and that we remained without guarantee or belief that the UK government in Westminster, for which none of us voted, will make any attempt to uphold these rights, despite the honourable efforts of the many persons of great integrity at the foreign office. We recognise that these persons have been asked to do the unthinkable by their masters in Westminster and that they will do their very best for us in whatever ways they can, but sadly this does not make our reality any less bitter.
But among the 100 attendees, there seemed none resigned to sitting back and accepting whatever mess the UK government makes of negotiations.
We will try to organise ourselves into the large existing groups, like British in Europe, and form larger and larger coalitions with other groups to try to attract attention to the very pressing issues around citizens’ rights
On leaving the meeting, the Consul General stated that the last such meeting, held the previous week, had ended in a shouting match, and appeared relieved that this event went off quite peacefully. I wonder though, how much longer people like us, subjected to the fallout of the whims of the Kakistocracy that is the current UK government, will remain polite and peaceful. For now, we feel pushed to apply for Dual Citizenship, as a safety net, but for those who live in countries where this is not possible, I would be interested in knowing the eventual numbers giving up their British citizenship, not just to secure their family’s future in their new country of residence, but also as a voicing of disgrace at the Brexiteers steering the UK beyond recognition of the country they once knew, loved, and still felt part of.
Before the meeting began there was an opportunity for the attendees to mingle and get to know each other, and I rapidly found the only other Scot present.
We noted that recently, while in Scotland, we have been feeling embattled and isolated at times, and there has been a strong impression of distance from England.
By the end of the event, regardless of my support for Scottish Independence, I took some comfort in this gathering of remarkable, open minded and cultivated people from the island where we were born, who had all chosen to make their home here in Germany. For one evening we were able to forget the differences between our “home” nations; how our “home” nations, regions, or constituencies voted in the EU referendum. And I was glad that all of us in this room, English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish alike, were all in this together, up the same stinking creek together, and together we will do what we can to fight the insanity of Brexit and the chaos it will rain down on us if the UK government is left to it’s own devices in the ongoing negotiations.
There are further such meetings being held in Germany during the coming weeks, and I expect similar events to be arranged in other EU countries too. I strongly recommend any Scots/Brits living in EU countries to look out for when they will be happening near them and attend. Attend in high numbers; speak up about your disapproval of Brexit and the UK government’s careless attitude to negotiations. And look to join with British in Europe, Scotland in Europe, or other similar citizens’ rights groups campaigning to protect the lives we have made outside of our countries of origin, and the rights we have all come to take for granted after at least 2 generations of EU membership.
Remember, there is no actual legal barrier to the stopping or delaying of Brexit. There is of course a place for petitions, protests, and hash tags, but it all must lead to genuine legal or parliamentary action, so the more involved we can get in pressuring our MPs, MSPs and MEPs, and campaigning with groups building resources to fight the UK government in the courts, the better chance we have of avoiding, or at very least softening this impending disaster.