Resume of meeting with Her Majesty’s Ambassador, Gill Morris, Ms Laura Trayburn, Ms Frances Lloyd (DexEU) and Ms Emma Davis (Foreign Office Consular Service) (pls check names!) at the British Institute of Florence, 18 September 2017.
HM Ambassador Gill Morris opened the meeting with a summary of its aim, namely to provide clear and direct information about Brexit to British citizens who live and work in Italy. She insisted that despite fairly hostile press coverage, much progress had been made, in particular on technical issues. The government’s aim was transparency as far as possible. In her words “It is about putting the people at the very heart of our approach”. The Ambassador and the officials present (the panel) invited the audience to put their questions.
Gareth Horsfall introduced himself as a committee member of British in Italy and briefly explained the work of the lobby group. He asked the panel why, given the often-repeated assurance by the UK and the EU 27 that maintaining reciprocal citizens’ rights was paramount for both sides, this issue could not be ring-fenced from the other negotiations. The Ambassador replied that the UK government had always put citizens’ rights first, and maintained it should not be linked to other issues, but it had been the EU27 position to put Ireland and the divorce settlement alongside these.
Laura Trayburn particularly complimented the work of British in Italy and the important liaison work that it was providing. She said that the UK had tried early on to settle the issue of citizens’ rights and the PM had stated it was her priority, but she was rebuffed, in particular by Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk.The EU stance was that nothing would be agreed until the other issues were agreed. Laura Trayburn felt that negotiations were at a point such that even if talks broke down on the other issues there would still be a good working text on citizens’ rights, and that progress had been made. The UK wanted to make sure that its citizens were protected and their lives would continue as before. It was not the case that the UK nationals in the EU were viewed by the government as ‘a bargaining chip’.
A Florence resident and governor of the British Institute asked what would change for him after Brexit and what rights Italian citizens in the UK would have. The ambassador assured him that there was agreement about maintaining the right of EU and UK citizens to vote in their countries of residence as before, the only exception being national general elections, which depend on citizenship. Emma Davis said she expected and hoped that nothing would change. Laura Trayburn said both sides had agreed on issues of pension rights and the aggregation of pension contributions.
The panel was asked about what protection there would be after Brexit for EU citizens in Britain if the UK does not recognise the jurisdiction of European Court of Justice. And what was the likelihood that, even if pre-Brexit acquired rights were included in the Withdrawal Agreement, they might subsequently be modified or abandoned, given the transfer of so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ to the executive as envisaged by the Bill currently going through Parliament?
The Ambassador replied that EU citizens in the UK would have the full protection of UK law and have the right to appeal right up to Supreme Court level if they felt they were being treated unfairly, but she said “life should continue broadly as is”. The British legal system was highly regarded. It has also been proposed that the rights written into the Withdrawal Agreement will be enshrined in a treaty which will have the force of international law. When asked who would oversee this she said it was yet to be agreed. She conceded that some monitoring body would be necessary, but confirmed that after Brexit the ECJ will have no jurisdiction in the UK, thus no role in the oversight of EU citizens’ rights.
It was pointed out that not all acquired rights for UK citizens in the EU are reciprocal. British teachers working in state schools in Italy, for example, are effectively Italian civil servants whose guarantee of employment depends on EU membership. LT replied that a similar situation existed in the UK where EU citizens are members of the UK civil service. While DexEU is not allowed to negotiate with individual EU national governments, the Italian government is aware of this issue, and she expected that a solution would be found.
The panel was asked about family rights after Brexit where one family member is a UK national and the other(s) an EU national. The ambassador said it was the PM’s clear aim to avoid splitting families. According to LT, there was broad general agreement on the rights of family members of existing family units, although rights of future family members were still to be decided. This discussion was closely linked to issues surrounding the Freedom of Movement Directive and the 2 year absence rule, and was still under negotiation. It was expected that special situations might arise which would need to be assessed separately. Family members were a major concern for the UK government. The UK government aims for UK nationals in the EU and EU nationals in the UK to have parity. There was considerable scope for movement and compromise around this issue. Concerns were raised over the fact that families were already being split up, despite the UK still being a full member of the EU. Other concerns were raised over environmental issues, social and disability benefits and nuclear energy.
The case was presented of two British nationals living in Norcia, whose house was compulsorily being pulled down after the recent earthquakes, and their status in applying for Italian government assistance and compensation. The couple would only receive Italian funding as EU nationals; therefore it was essential that their application be made while the UK was still a member, although the funds would probably not be made available for five years. The Ambassador took note of the situation and promised to pass the concern to the Italian government.
Responding to a question on how peace and security in Europe had been consolidated through the EU, the Ambassador promised that the UK’s commitment to European defence would continue as before. UK was unique among EU countries in paying 2% of its GDP in defence and 0.7% to development aid. No one could doubt the UK’s commitment to peace and security. Some scepticism was voiced about how much one should believe in the Prime minister’s promises when she had reversed so many of her previous commitments. On issues of peace and security a participant observed that the EU had made war between European nations very unlikely, and for members of the audience who recalled the war years this was of great importance. However peace was not merely the absence of war but depends on the development of collaboration, trust and mutual understanding. These were very much due to the EU and its cross-border institutions. It was shocking that the UK was deliberately undermining the very institutions which had brought such benefits. The ambassador insisted that Britain was leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe. She had accompanied the Minister for Universities and Science on a recent trip and promised that Britain’s intention was to continue to participate in research and science projects and student exchange programmes such as Erasmus.
One questioner requested clarification on the formalities for cross-border European travel after Brexit, and whether her husband, who current travels with her on an Italian ID card, would need a visa to enter the UK. The answer was that future cross border travel issues were still under discussion.
The panel was asked about the cost of Brexit. The ambassador replied that it was necessary to have a ‘shared legal understanding’ regarding the cost of the divorce settlement. In other words the methodology was important, not the numbers. The UK has some obligations which will continue, but the Commission had not presented a figure and it was unhelpful to have a public debate on this. The UK was working towards finding a shared legal basis for the negotiations.
The British Honorary Consul in Venice reported that many British in the Veneto area were starting to apply for dual nationality. This was due to fear about the future and also anger at the 15 year exclusion rule. Many felt it would be better to have a vote in one country – Italy – than be deprived of the right to vote in both. Having a vote was a moral issue. Many British in Italy see themselves as ambassadors for their country and feel they are serving it in their different roles in Italy but had been very aggrieved at being excluded from the referendum. The ambassador said more than once that she recognised the anger of British citizens excluded under the 15 year rule from voting in the referendum.
It was suggested that the British government ‘might’ offer help to Britons who are seeking dual nationality.
The panel was asked, given the short timescale involved and the complexity of issues to be resolved, about the likelihood of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. The panel’s response was that this was ‘very unlikely’ and that compromises would undoubtedly be found. Despite the panel’s attempts to reassure the audience of British nationals about life after Brexit, the predominant reaction of those present was one of scepticism and pessimism.
We think it was summed up by HM Ambassador Gill Morris’s words nearing the end of the presentation: “words are of limited reassurance at this point”.
However they welcomed the opportunity to question the panel and appreciated that the ambassador and her colleagues had given their time to hold the meeting.