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As expat groups organize, the Brexit fightback begins

Source: El Pais - Fri 10th Mar 2017
As expat groups organize, the Brexit fightback begins

For this journalist, as is the case, no doubt, for many other long-term British residents of Spain, one of the first thoughts to cross his mind every single morning, usually just after waking up, is “Urghhh, Brexit…” (Since November it has been accompanied by “Urghhh, Trump,” but that’s for another article.)

So it was somewhat heartening this week to attend a roundtable at the European Parliament offices in central Madrid surrounded by British expats, Spanish citizens, politicians, academics and journalists, all of whom are equally as concerned by Brexit, and who were there to hear a panel of experts discuss what the process could mean for them and for their countries’ joint futures.

The event was organized by Eurocitizens, one of many campaigning groups to have sprung up across Europe ever since British voters decided that they wanted out of the 28-country club. The organization, run by long-term residents of Spain, says it is not trying to turn the clock back on the Brexit vote, but rather campaign to preserve the rights of Britons in Spain and Spaniards in the United Kingdom, during what will no doubt be an extremely long-drawn-out negotiation process as country extricates itself from the EU.

First to address the more than 120-strong audience of interested parties was the group’s vice-president, Michael Harris. For Harris, a writer by trade who has lived in Spain for more than 30 years, the Brexit vote was a “referendum where we didn’t have the vote,” given that UK electoral law prevents expats who have lived outside of their home country for more than 15 years from casting their ballot – whether it’s a general election or a referendum such as the Brexit poll. Of the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU, Harris continued, 80% could not participate in the vote, the result of which, he added, has left us in a “legal limbo – or perhaps it would be better to call it purgatory.”

Harris had plenty of criticism for the UK government, which he blames for having created an “artificial and completely unnecessary uncertainty” about the future of British citizens living in the EU. What’s more, he explained, despite repeated requests, government officials in charge of the process have failed to respond to Eurocitizens’ requests for meetings, claiming they are “too busy with commercial concerns.”

His message for governments and politicians? “We want to stay where we are. We don’t want work permits, or residence permits. We want to retain our rights as European citizens.”

Spanish senator José Montilla, of the Socialist Party (PSOE) encouraged the attendees of the roundtable to apply as much pressure on governments as possible during the Brexit process, describing such action as completely “legitimate.”

“Clarifying the uncertainties of British citizens in the European Union and of European citizens in the UK must be an absolute priority,” he added. “People come first.”

Representing the UK government at the meeting was Tim Hemmings, the deputy ambassador at the British Embassy, who impressed on British attendees an important point: that until a Brexit deal is reached, “your rights will not change. Get in touch [with the embassy] if someone tells you otherwise.”

Hemmings also tried to strike an optimistic note, with the message that “change and opportunity come hand in hand. [...] Although we’re leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe. We are still European.”

Member of the European Parliament and vice-chair of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Enrique Guerrero, expressed his fears over the Brexit process, in response to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” “If there is no deal, we are in a completely different world,” Guerrero warned, also pointing out that the month of May could be much more important than March, as that is when the UK is due to trigger Article 50, starting the formal process of leaving the EU. “There are French elections in May,” the MEP pointed out. “The EU can live without the UK. But not without France.”

As for the loss of voting rights Britons will suffer – expats in Spain will in theory no longer be able to vote in municipal elections after Brexit, nor of course European Parliament elections – Guerrero drew attention to the fact that Brits are facing a “nostalgic return to taxation without representation.”

Robert Robinson, vice-dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at the Pontifical University of Comillas, expressed his concerns about what a potential drain of Spaniards from the UK could do. “The British economy is going to lose its competitive edge without Spanish talent,” he explained. “And I’m very pessimistic about the effect on the British university system, which will have to replace EU funding with British funding.”

Providing the point of view of Spanish residents in Britain was Vanesa López-Román, from a similar group to Eurocitizens, entitled “Spaniards in the United Kingdom - surviving Brexit.” “I’m surprised at the number of [Spanish] people who are already thinking about leaving,” she explained, adding that many were planning on getting out of the UK once they have secured British nationality. “I am also thinking about leaving,” she added.

After the speeches from the panel and the roundtable discussion, which was moderated by Eurocitizens’ secretary Camilla Hillier-Fry, the session was opened up to questions from the floor. The first person to take the microphone asked the panel: “Could anything positive come out of the UK leaving the EU?” A deathly silence ensued, followed by laughter from the audience. It would appear that early-morning cursing of Brexit is here to stay...

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