Lives in Limbo

Below are my thoughts, published today on the ‘Reimagining Europe’ website, about the rights of EU citizens not resident in their own country:

Around 3.2 million people living in the UK in 2015 were citizens of another EU country. That’s around 5% of the population. On the other hand, around 1.2 million people born in the UK live in other EU countries. Most of them live in Spain (310,000), Ireland (250,000) and France (190,000). You can find the figures here. So current parliamentary debates around ‘the rights of EU citizens not resident in their own country’ affect a very large number of us.

EU nationals come to the UK mostly to work or to find work. An astonishing 80% of working age EU citizens in the UK are in work. By contrast, many UK emigrants go to other EU states to retire. Broadly speaking, we are taking young Europeans who want jobs and exporting a good number of retired people seeking warmer climes. Some of us would argue that’s been a pretty good deal for Britain. Whatever you think, it’s obviously not a straightforward level playing field.

Setting aside Ireland (where special reciprocal rights have anyway applied for a long time), the rest of the UK emigrants to the EU live in our diocese. How are they feeling about their future rights?

The UK government has made a lot of ‘reciprocity’. They don’t want to give residency rights to the 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK before other states give similar rights to the 1.2 million of us living on the continent. I haven’t heard many people in our diocese expressing concerns about this. For myself, I’d rather the UK set a moral lead and give rights to their EU citizens now. The UK government’s approach makes me feel I’m simply being used as a bargaining chip. And I hope more of my fellow bishops will turn up in the Lords for future debates on the subject – only 5 out of 21 were present to vote on the amendment to the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. But basic ‘residency’ isn’t, in any case, top of the list of our concerns.

People in our diocese are worrying most about healthcare arrangements. There is currently mutual recognition of state national insurance contributions, making it possible for affordable health care to be received when UK citizens are resident in another EU country on the same basis as its own citizens.  UK tourists can get healthcare covered using an EHIC form. Pensioners can reclaim costs from the NHS via an S1 form. In my opinion, these sophisticated reciprocal health care arrangements represent one of the EU’s best achievements. But we don’t know how, if at all, these schemes will apply under a hard Brexit. For older, more vulnerable people these concerns about whether they will be able to afford healthcare are causing real mental distress.

A second big area of concern is pensions. Currently UK pensions can be received in EU member states with annual uplifts for price or wages growth. Will this continue? And will UK public service pensions also receive annual indexation for citizens who choose to live on the continent? Or will pensions be frozen if someone leaves the UK to live in the EU? This is an area which requires no negotiation with other EU member states – it just requires the UK government to look at the issue and decide!

There are a host of other ‘money’ issues around double taxation treaties, inheritance tax rules, the receipt of gross interest on investments held in the UK, etc. There are concerns around the ‘seconded workers’ scheme, which enables businesses to send workers short-term to another member state without needing to enrol them in that member state’s social security system. (Oh and, I should say, as someone with a care for the employment of clergy, I’m nervous about possible restrictions on the movement of religious workers into the EU.) It is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot of expensive expert consultancy to sort.

Finally, there are about 2000 people of British nationality working directly for the EU Institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg. They represent only a small proportion of our diocese, but the departure of the UK affects them in a very direct and unique way. In their professional lives, they have been able to project a positive image of the UK, to bring an understanding of the British perspective across the full range of policy areas, and expose the EU institutions to the best aspects of British administrative culture. Even after Brexit, they still hope to act as “ambassadors” for the best of British values. They feel strongly that the British Government has an ongoing duty of care towards them.

The ability of people to move freely across the UK and continental Europe to find work when they are younger, or to find a more pleasant climate when they are older, has been a wonderful thing. It has brought income to poorer people; it has been culturally enriching; it has probably added years to the lives of some older folk.  People sometimes ask me what I’m looking for in the negotiations. It’s quite simple: I’d like things to stay the same. I think that is quite a reasonable negotiating goal, and I’m hoping our government will be able to achieve it.

 

The Rt. Revd. Dr. Robert Innes

Bishop in Europe

 

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