Having received information from the Consular Division at the British Embassy about the FCO Travel live Q&A Session with Julia Longbottom, Director of Consular Services that was held yesterday, last week I duly circulated it to various groups of Britons living in Austria.
However laudable the initiative, it fell short on a number of issues. Firstly, holding such a live event during the middle of the working day didn’t allow those in offices without Facebook access to participate actively (i.e. by posting questions), and Facebook diplomacy requires users to have a Facebook account to be able to ask questions (and of course leaves it at the mercy of disruptive keyboard warriors chiming in every 20-30 seconds with facetious comments). On the plus side it was, however, possible to watch the livestream after the event.
So what could I take away from watching (and taking notes!) it, which in particular is useful for considering my own personal exit strategy.
Residence rights, the first topic addressed, are clearly the biggest concern of Britons in the EU, and EU citizens in Britain. Their continuing situation was highlighted by Ms. Longbottom as having “key priority status” and she was keen to reiterate the message, nay mantra, that at the current time “The UK remains a full member of the EU, with all the rights and obligations that entails.”
Regarding moving abroad in the future (the question in particular addressed moving to Spain), it was highlighted that the EU immigration system of the future is still unclear – and the PM May wants a reciprocal deal. Ms. Longbottom, qualified the PM not being willing to unilaterally secure status of EU nationals in the UK, due to the necessity of arguing about the interests of Britons in the EU.
Regarding a grandfathered “EU status” / EU Citizenship. While “very much a matter for negotiations” it was mentioned that the PM has made it clear that the UK will not be part of free movement. The continuing status for Britons in the EU was “something the PM would have liked to have agreed upon in advance, and now is something that is hoped to be agreed upon very quickly.” Currently the UK is claiming to be waiting for the EU Member States to agree upon their negotiation stance.
A further question about whether there would be a change in residence status in the next 2 years (in the question for Portugal – but equally for other EU Member States), the mantra of residence status was again “The UK at the moment remains a full member of the EU, with all the rights and obligations that entails,” although she believes that the UK will leave within the next two years. Towards the end of the interview it was reiterated about the timescale of negotiations, and how clarifying status of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK is “high priority” – and PM May had wanted to agree upon this before triggering Article 50. (Author’s aside: with all the goodwill in the world, this could not be decided upon before triggering Article 50…)
This stock reply was also given regarding healthcare in the Canaries and Spain and the concerns of Britons retiring in Spain. Again a “priority”. A later question regarded why the FCO had not contacted the CAB in Spain at all – this was slightly fobbed off, with the response about “having visited the Costas (Alicante and Benidorm) recently”. The reality is that FCO resources are sparse. It was recommended to check the gov.uk pages regarding the UK Leaving the EU – in particular this page, as well as British Embassy Facebook pages – the one for the British Embassy in Austria is here.
The next topic was Education/Teaching English/Working in EU countries/moving back and forth. It was highlighted about British Schools and teaching English and the “big contribution they make to the education of British and European children” – and the concerns re: freedom of movement and working and recruiting. Again “part of negotiations” and “no change for the next two years”.
The issue of emergency travel / illness / repatriation to UK: both the issue of access to healthcare and travelling freely are issues the Government is “seeking to reach a good agreement on”. A related question on the EHIC card and access to healthcare elsewhere again flagged this as “high priority” – such rights are part of package of services or benefits, and will try to be secured.
Regarding student fees: and when will they change for students looking to study abroad (and for British/EU students in the UK) – again no change expected for the next two years. Again the stock reply about being part of the negotiations. And of course “Britain remains part of Europe, although not part of the EU” and the equally vacuous response “All sides recognise value of flow, for work/study purposes”.
Regarding communications from the government – it was highlighted again about the importance of gov.uk’s pages about the UK leaving the EU, which are fully up-to-date, as are FB pages of embassies within the EU. A response to a subsequent question also stated that the Q&A was just one part of many, and highlighted that ambassadors and embassy staff have been locally very active – and urges assistance groups to invite embassy staff to join, and that digital channels should be used.
Another question focused on returning to live in the UK with an EU national husband – again the stock phrase of “as you were until we know about future agreement…”
Around half-way through, the issue of applying for other nationality if eligible. The response was that the UK recognises dual nationality, cannot advise on other rules in other countries, some allow it and others don’t. The recommendation was to look into eligibility, but of course also to be aware of the rules regarding dual nationality (link contains the information about Austrian Citizenship Law).
The issue of being able to vote – including not being allowed to vote in the Referendum (cue for response “we understand frustrations and the 15 year rule, before pointing to the manifesto commitment to bring forward legislation for Votes for Life, to allow people to vote again in the future). Cited as being a “step forward”.
A question regarding pensions and inflation-linked pension increases was mentioned fleetingly, but with no real message.
The status of people living legally in other EU countries: the response was yes, you can continue to do so, although clarification will be needed about what the new system will be and how it works. Ms. Longbottom advised that on occasion Local Authorities in EU Member States might have already claimed that there has been a change of rights and status, and advises contacting your Embassy if you have had issues – status, rights and obligations have not changed.
Question about providing free apostille and authorised translation services – the question was somewhat optimistic – and the FCO has noticed an increase in legalisation and apostille services since June 2016 (usually attached to marriage/residence status). Realistic response of there being no prospect of free services, but efficiency important. The clarion call that UK Citizens in the EU should “check and regularise your rights” – and check that you meet the obligations for legal residency are reiterated. Doing so is of course part of the steps needed to be taken towards naturalisation.
Regarding the validity of current UK passports and whether they will need to be reissued or whether one can wait until expiry – they remain valid and there is currently no visa for EU travel or extra validity requirements. Passport info will be available once known.
Regarding the issue of future purchasing property in EU countries: clarity will be needed regarding owning property in the future, and this will be dependent on the interests of respective countries.
The final question dealt with UK citizens in Ireland and CTA – and Ms. Longbottom was keen to “reinforce the importance of our deep and historic relationship”. The PM has “made it very clear that we should ensure that the unique relationship continues to be strong and unaffected by EU departure“, mentioning it is an “early priority for negotiations, and there should be no return to hard borders“.
In concluding it was mentioned that key themes and answers would be covered on FB. She advised being careful about giving credibility to rumours – and urged checking real and authentic sources (e.g. Gov.uk).
My own personal take aways: taking responsibility for one’s own interests is a prudent way to proceed (e.g. naturalisation, confirmation of legality of residence). A lot of issues are still very much a work in progress – it vindicates my decision though to consider my personal situation and act upon it, rather than waiting for something to happen for me.