1st October 2019
Yesterday evening the British Embassy organised an event in Krakow as part of a road show to inform British Citizens Living in Poland about the implications of a "no deal" Brexit.
The reason for this blog post is that the event was remarkable, unusual, impressive and terrifying. I don't often go to meetings like this. I'll describe what happened and give some commentary. The comments are my own.
A friendly lady ticked us off a list (despite the warming that photo ID would be needed). When I arrived 15 minutes early there were about 30 people in the the room, a number which must have more than doubled by the end. There was no official welcoming, icebreakers (my TEDx eyes scrutinise every event carefully). I found a few familiar faces but most were strangers (I've often thought that unlike other national minorities there is no tradition of "the Brits" hanging out together in a place like Kraków. It was the first gathering organised by the British Embassy in Krakow for the British residents here since 1991 (with the exception of another "impact of Brexit" meeting I missed). It was remarkable to see so many completely new faces. The age range was from early 20s to 70s. The meeting started about 10 mins late for no reason that was explained, but it least it started within the appalling "academic quarter" - the idea that it's "OK" to start meetings up to 15 mins late.
The atmosphere seemed matter of fact, sad and apprehensive to me.
Jason Rheinberg introduced himself, his team, and Polish officials from the relevant government departments including someone from the Border Police (which was thought provoking). My photo of Jason was back lit - there is a better photo of him here.
The officials (British and Polish) in the room were not responsible for the policies they are representing, and so I was planning not to be directly angry with them.
My question about long term post-Brexit visa policies were kicked down the road. I'm very concerned about the cost and uncertainty for Polish family members and employees who want to stay longer than 90 day visits to the UK. The costs are high and the uncertainty troubling:
There were no answers - "a future Immigration Bill will deal with this", we were told. 'This meeting is just about 'no deal Brexit' - If there is a deal then there is a much more time." I don't think two - three years is long in the context of a planning a career, raising a family or living a life.
I was told
"When the new Immigration Bill is being prepared, a consultative White Paper will be published, where members of the public can make representations. As I don't have a vote - if I want to reach a politician, I can write to the Home Office." I'm not convinced that this will make any difference.
It's not nice to know that the Civil Servants don't know if it visas will become as hard and expensive for Poles in a few years as it is for Americans now, but I guess that is what is coming.
The oddest part of the meeting was Jason Rheinberg's description of the political situation in the UK. I was expecting him to represent the government. His Twitter feed has regular retweets of statements by Boris Johnson. I suppose that is part of his job.
As well as speaking about government policy - the Deputy Head of Mission decided to speak for, and interpret the actions and motives of UK Parliament. This is what he had to say about it.
" As you know at the end of that negotiation Teresa May took the package to the British parliament, in fact she took the package to the British Parliament three times and every time parliament rejected that deal. Now there are number of reasons why Parliament did that but it wasn’t because they disagreed with the vast majority of that deal. Parliament didn’t disagree with the rights it gave EU nationals in the UK or British Nationals in the EU. It didn’t really disagree with the amount of money we agreed to pay the EU for what we owed from our stay. It didn’t disagree with the transitional arrangement - this 18 months where things would essential stay the same. it didn’t really disagree with most of the future framework. Most of this sense of what the future relationship would look like. But one thing they really did not like is the Irish backstop and you’ll know a lot about this, you’ll have read a lot about it/ But essentially the backstop is a plan B. It said that if at the end of that transitional agreement December 2020 after we’ed left the EU if even by December 202 we hadn’t agreed a new relationship with the EU essentially it took longer than we expected that we would fall back into this plan B which kept the UK as a whole within a customs union with the EU and subjecting Northern Ireland to essentially free market or common market rules within the EU. and Parliament said “no” to this. They said “no” essentially because they believed it was taking away too much of British Sovereignty and in particular because you couldn’t get out of the Backstop. in fact it is harder to get out of the backstop than to get out of the EU because there is no Article 50. The only way to get out of the backstop is if both sides agree to move something else and parliament, or a majority of Parliamentarians felt that that was too much of an improvision?? on British sovereignty and so of course we now have the current government under Boris Johnston. David Frost our negotiation and his Ministers are in Brussels every day trying to find an alternative to the Backstop. Trying to find another way of protecting the GFA, removing the need for customs check on the Northern Southern Irish border, protecting the European Common Market as another way to the Backstop because they know the Backstop as it currently exists won’t get through the British Parliament."
I was very surprised. I thought that a lot (maybe even a majority) of MPs were against Brexit completely, and that some of them felt that they should support Brexit out of a sense of democratic duty towards the referendum result. I understand that as a representative of the UK Government he has to say what the the government claims to be true, but particularly at a moment where Parliament and the PM are at loggerheads, it was odd to speak on behalf of deeply divided parliament as if he knew its collective mind and it had a view that could be represented in this way. I thought one of the many problems of Brexit is that there is a majority against all possible versions of it.
Could Parliament could ask Ambassadors to represent it directly (cutting out No 10) ? Of course not. But if diplomats are claiming to speak for Parliament, surely they should take more care with their words, especially at a time like this, when we are weeks away from possible disaster.
As Jonathan Powell - Downing Street chief of staff 1997-07 who was deeply involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement put it. in a letter to the Times
....If we leave the single market and the customs union, as we will have to for the Canada-style free trade agreement favoured by Boris Johnson, there will have to be a border somewhere. It can be between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or between the island of Ireland and the rest of the EU.
The DUP has a perfectly legitimate complaint against the border between Northern Ireland and Britain because it undermines its identity. The Irish are rightly never going to agree to a border with the EU. And a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would reopen the issue of identity underpinning the Good Friday agreement. This has been the problem bedevilling the Brexit talks since the start and to suggest that a common agricultural area for the whole of Ireland and some cobbled-together ideas about trusted trader schemes solves it, is nonsense. In truth we are still a long way from a negotiated deal and no one has yet found the magic key to unlock it."
I understand pro Brexit politicians glossing over this logic, but not professional diplomats., and this problem has not gone away. The underlying reality is that those advocating Brexit were voting against something, not for something. The costs and compromises that the UK would have to make out of the EU to be treated as well as Norway, Canada or Switzerland were not spelled out.
These political comments don't really matter.
The main focus of the meeting was a wake up call to the looming disruption to "life as usual" that Brexit is going to cause for British people in Poland.
There was a tone of shock and foreboding as officials from the Polish government went through detailed slides addressing the different scenarios that those in the room might be in.
"Access to Health Care ?"- "only if you pay ZUS.?"
"Can you drive on a UK Driving licence?" "Only for six months.
"Will you be able to stay in Schengen for more than 90 days?" only if you register and get a special document".
I photographed the slides here Just to give a sense of what they were like I am showing you one.
The Police officials were helpful and serious.
What they only partially got across is the the Brits in the room are the lucky ones who are being given extra time - a grace period - to get their affairs in order in the event of a no deal Brexit, and there are routes to Temporary and Permanent Residency rights available for British citizens now in Poland legally that will not be available in the future. It's going to be much harder for Brits of all ages to come and build their lives here (and vice versa). The amount of worry, strain and concern in tone of questions from the audience was audible.
There was one shocking moment during the meeting when an angry entitled voice from a few rows back called out at one of the Polish Civil Servants
"Why do we have to go through with all this - when in England they (the Poles) have everything done for them by us?". Although one of the British Embassy people pointed out that these processes were similar to what EU nationals are having to do in the UK, I had a strong sense that the grim symmetry of Brexit is only just dawning on some sections of the British public. I doubt whether the numerous challenges of British citizens in Europe are much reported in Brexit supporting media, though I may be wrong. The more freedoms are removed for EU citizens in the UK the more it is going to restrict British citizens freedoms in the EU.
1. The government officials on both sides were courteous and helpful, but the information they were passing on is very bad news for British people with on going interests in Poland and vice versa. The Withdrawal Agreement, if it passes, only delays the moment when freedom of movement ends.
2. Bad though things are, they are going to get worse. UK citizens who have sorted out their legal status in Poland established prior to Brexit day are going to better treated than those who don't. Bad luck if you have a 15 or 10 year old who might have wanted to look into building a a life here, or you are a 15 year old and you like the idea of travelling and working around the 27 member states. Bad luck if you want to work in multiple EU countries without having to ask permission.
3. Looming is a "legal status" apartheid where Brits who managed to establish themselves legally in Europe before Brexit, or were granted citizenship of an EU country other than the UK will be the lucky ones. Those with British passports only, will have fewer rights and opportunities. There are many citizens of developing countries who are very familiar with the disadvantages of needing visas for living abroad, for travel and work. This is going to be a painful learning experience for many.
If I were just me and my immediately family, I would be more or less "Brexit proof". I and my children have dual nationality. I'm Polish by choice, not descent, and proud to be part of this great country. I wrote about this here
But I am not just me and my immediate family. It's going to hurt others more than me but I care about that as well. The impact on our culture, relationships, and identities is going to be profound and that is not to even start on the the damage to the UK's economy, security and institutions.
I said thank you to the people who organised and spoke at the meeting and I meant it. None the less it was one of the saddest and most depressing meetings I've been to in my life.