Building Bridges: Part 1 of European Movement conference

Some of the speakers at the European Movement conference 2021

The conference was opened by its host, Anna Bird, the CEO of the European Movement UK, with the keynote opening speech by Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, former leader of the Green Party and Green MEP.

“We’re still grieving about Brexit,” she said, and “no treaty or trade cooperation agreement will make us feel un-European in our heads, hearts and souls. Many of us are feeling cut off and adrift from our friends across the Channel.”

And all amid the greatest challenges known to the world, the interlinked emergencies facing our climate, biosphere, our security and survival. As the European Parliament calls to reduce the Bloc’s carbon footprint, the EU Investment Bank actively seeks to put money in the mouth of the Paris Agreement. As the EU’s green deal seeks to renew and enhance its environmental protection laws and reduce carbon levels, the UK languishes, lacking any coherent strategy to reduce its carbon output, phase out pesticides, or end the burning of peat.

Instead, regulations regarding the control of air pollution, waste dumping, and the use of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), are due to be rolled back. There is a vast gulf between ministerial rhetoric and action on the ground and countering the UK’s dangerous addiction to fossil fuels. Where there is any sign of urgency or ambition, it is to drive a coach and horses through environmental protections agreed, enacted and enforced by being in the EU. The ‘Green Brexit’ promised (81% of Leave voters under 48-years-old wanted to keep or increase environmental protections), has materialised as the Environment Bill, which dumps the precautionary principle; regulations are no longer enforced, replaced by ‘guidance’ to which neither the Treasury nor Ministry of Defence need even pay due regard.

As the UK’s own vaccination programme has shown, with the right political will, the impossible can be done – the homeless can be housed, NHS debts can be written off. And yet Johnson is capitalising on the UK’s success of the vaccine program to brook a vaccine war with the EU, Johnson being “pumped up on the Viagra of making the EU look bad and himself look efficient.”

“But he is all mouth and no trousers”. The climate crisis and pandemic must be dealt with by an alliance of nations globally, to which end Biden spoke with the EU’s leaders just the other day, with the UK “on the fringes, absent, marginalised”. Johnson’s “Global Britain” encapsulated by 80 new nuclear warheads, presumably with Union flags on their noses. For sure the UK cannot, will not be equipped to meet global efforts to conserve 30% of the world’s oceans and lands by 2030.

The Trade bill removes any guarantee of ensuring imports meet cultural and environmental standards, and MPs have already voted away their right to scrutinise trade deals: “As an MEP I had more power to scrutinise trade deals!” Democracy is under relentless attack, power and responsibilities are being increasingly centralised in the hands of a few ministers. The UK is an intolerably unequal country, beset by fake news. 

It is “especially cruel” that the young who had no voice will be most affected, and have opportunities in Europe stolen from them, to live, work, study in Europe, or fall in love with another country’s culture. The destruction of the Erasmus scheme was particularly gratuitous. But there we see we can win back, she said, as Northern Ireland and Wales undertake to be part of Erasmus. 

We must “look beyond the grief and the hurt”. The European project has always represented the spirit of positive, open, and generous solidarity which Brexit cannot take away. We have to look to individual and collective acts of cross-border friendship, and redefine ourselves post-Brexit, post-pandemic, as the builders of peace as we did post-war.

Certainly, we must acknowledge the “democratic deficit that allowed the idea of Brexit to flourish”, both in the EU and the UK’s own failing voting system, and she warned: “when the people of Britain are deprived of their say and accountability, I fear for who’s blamed next.”

Nonetheless, the future needs a strong European movement to keep alive the spirit of collaboration now: “I have never been more certain that Brexit can’t take away our connections or hope, unless we let it.”

That said, there is a lot more grief to get through as the first session, ‘The Brexit Deal – three months on’, laid out. It began with a topic that came up repeatedly during the day, the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Alliance Party said that to say Brexit had made the ordinary, everyday functioning of Northern Ireland “difficult”, would be an “understatement”.

For ever “a divided society and contested space”, stability in Northern Ireland only works through sharing and interdependence. But this has all been upended by Brexit. The new borders, boundaries, restrictions, and great frustration over trade between NI and Britain wrought by the customs border in the Irish Sea, has led to empty shelves in NI shops and disturbing murmurs of anger from Unionists, impacting NI’s trade, its economy, its civil society, its cross-community relations, and locals’ sense of identity, the very peace of the province.

A simple solution: Farry proposed an EU-UK agreement over veterinary checks and others on flows of agricultural and processed food products that would immediately reduce trade friction between NI and Britain, and for UK exports to the EU.

But this is blocked by the entrenched ideology of Lord Frost and partners regarding the ‘sovereignty’ that is preventing the most basic alignment of regulations, Farry said. This dogmatism compounded by Johnson clearly having never fully recognised the implications of Brexit on NI, although the history of intransigence and perfidy started way back in 2017 when Theresa May initially agreed to a backstop, only for David Davis to say days later, “we didn’t really mean it”.

Hence, for all the frustration and fervour over the NI Protocol that is central to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) agreed between the UK and EU last Christmas Eve, the UK’s Government’s perfidious solution has since been to take unilateral action to suspend the Irish Sea border, breaching the Deal and international law.

Worse, politics is moving away from fixing the protocol towards scrapping it, leading to political chaos and requiring a border In Ireland where currently there is practically none, with “very major consequences” not just for politics in NI, Farry warned, but would upset the EU and “go down very badly with [newly elected US President] Biden”.

If the protocol fails, “all bets are off” regarding NI’s place within the current set-up and constitution within the UK, and will ultimately only push an “aspiration” in NI towards reuniting with Ireland deeper and beyond the “fluid discussion” it is now, as evidenced by majority support for a border poll before 2030. “We have a right to own political future. A softer Brexit means more comfortable with the status quo, a harder Brexit raises questions.” The failure of the UK Government to recognise the dangers of the “huge paradox” of Brexit, where ‘sovereignty’ poses such a threat to  UK integrity, is compounded by Scotland also tipping further towards independence: “The proliferation of flags is papering the cracks, but is not addressing genuine issues.”

Jon Worth, a political journalist and visiting professor at the College of Europe, agreed that closer alignment with the EU, as per a basic veterinary agreement, could make the deal work. However, he equally concurred it is Frost and Co’s “sovereignty-first Brexit” backed by “very solid opposition” in the Conservative party that prevents it.

The Deal itself, flawed already by its non-tariff bureaucracy and costs is not just bad but is unfair, Worth argues. Imports of fruit and veg at Dover are facing no checks for the first six months, but exports are being submitted to full checks, thus badly affecting agricultural exporters and the food and drinks industry, and meaning “Global Britain exporting” is actually limited and restricted.

The obvious solution of re-joining the Customs Union, if not the European Free Trade Association, is a non-starter for the Conservatives. But their solution, to “turn a blind eye to the situation in Dover and NI” and simply “extend as long as we like” is fermenting enough disquiet and distrust in the EU that it is no longer certain the EU Parliament (EUP) will ratify the Trade and Cooperation Agreement by the end of April, when its provisional application expires. The UK has been “messing the EU around with grace periods” to such an extent that it raises the question “can the EUP even agree the deal as it is?” Answer: No Deal by default. 

From another angle, an agreement on veterinary checks and enabling musicians and creatives to tour visa-free would lead others to say, “but what about us?” Worth argued: “If we secure it first [for vets and creatives], make that economic case, then we can make the case for others. So we don’t start with the Customs Union, it’s too big for politics now. We start with the vet agreement, and freedom of movement for creative industries, where the case is extremely strong.” Strong enough that the Tories “know it makes sense pragmatically but they can’t overcome sovereignty ideology!” 

Such vehement strength in its ideology; yet Brexit is also proving limitless in its feckless application, fickleness and cruelty. Kate Smart – CEO of Settled, a charity working to help EU citizens get settled status (SS) in the UK, byproviding helplines and online information sessions, remarked that in 2016, “even ultra-Brexiters were not arguing for the destruction of EU citizens’ rights”. On the contrary they said, nothing would change for the three million Europeans in the UK, and the million Brits in Europe.

Five years on, as the June deadline fast approaches, Smart spoke of the endemic problems within the system, meaning that while many millions will have SS, “many won’t, and for good reasons, they’ll have tried and failed.” Amid a deficit of information about having to apply, or how to apply, not everyone who needs to apply will do so by the deadline, she warns, for manifold reasons: people are struggling with the IT requirements, and she cited an authority in North London that found among 200 families needing SS, “only two knew how to prove their status through their mobile phones”. There are people in precarious jobs, farming, food processing, rendered all the more vulnerable by the pandemic, whose English may not be up to par. There are people who’ve lived here so long they think it doesn’t apply to them – including people in care homes: “One care home owner we spoke to had no idea who in their charge was European and still needed SS.” People are isolated, not knowing what they need to do or are absolutely miles from wherever they need go to apply or have interviews. There are people who don’t know they have to apply for their children too, amid new restrictions on which family can qualify, and their incomes. People are marooned abroad for extended periods by the pandemic, diminishing the time in-country needed to show they live here; and the backlog, compounded by the pandemic, of embassies dealing with passport applications as a precursor for people applying for SS, because “they didn’t realise the scale of the problem”.  

Discrimination is already growing, both direct and indirect arising from confusion. “Already we see people with problems proving status,” be it relating to rental agreements, taking out loans, or applying for work. She related the case of a job offer made, then withdrawn, as the HR department didn’t believe the applicant “had no paper document to show.” They had SS, but for want of just a card, some physical proof of having SS which the Government refuses to provide, the offer was revoked.  We need an extension.

There followed a Q&A between Lord Andrew Adonis and the famed entrepreneur, investor and business guru Deborah Meadon, who was upbeat in her appraisal of the ability of British companies, particularly small companies, to be “fleet of foot”, to respond and adapt to changing situations. She anticipated that just two of the 19 companies she has investments in would fail to survive post-pandemic and post-Brexit. SMEs have a “huge advantage” she said, “their noses are close to the ground, they can sense the mood of the market”, and respond much more swiftly than far-removed, larger companies with cumbersome processes. Indeed, she agreed with Lord Adonis’  analogy, “the EU is a tanker while the UK is a speed boat”, and proven by the vaccine roll-out (though this could have been done with the UK in the EU, Adonis noted). “That’s what we should be doing,” she said, but the vaccine success stands out all the more against the government’s entirely “muddled” approach to Brexit, and to preparing business for it.

“It was so obvious we weren’t ready,” she laments, “there was no proper will to make things work, no speaking to industry, just soundbites, no action behind the words,” she said. Businesses were told to “get ready”, but they’d no idea what to do. She said: “Get yourself ready’ – what does that mean?” She knows of large firms with entire departments dedicated to planning for Brexit, but even so they were “Oh my God I didn’t think of that” on the day, because they couldn’t.

The next session was, ‘The impact of Brexit on the creative industries’. Festival and theatre director Johnathan Holloway spoke about the “joyous, inspirational” works he has been involved in for festivals and projects in Europe and the world, involving musicians, dancers, actors, film-makers, festival organisers, and all ancillary businesses, involving tens of thousands of people and impacting millions of lives. Then comes Brexit, Brexit, the “disaster”, the “madness”, that is “deeply, deeply sad”, and “unbelievably demoralising”. “Every week I talk to artists worldwide who can’t believe what the UK has done,” as freelance actor and musician Jess Murphy brilliantly illustrated.

The creative industries are collectively worth £111 billion to the UK economy, Murphy said, “second only to the financial services sector”. Obviously, innate to the freelancers’ ability to make a living is networking, and taking opportunities as they come from such networks. Critical to this is deputising, and musicians have their own networks or pools of four or five deputies, so that someone working on Lion King who lands a job touring with Elton John across Europe can fill their Lion King seat with a deputy, without ruining the production and their professional reputation, while at the same time affording opportunities for themselves and the deputy. The deputy then covers their commitments with a deputy, who then gets another to cover their own sessions. Brexit kills those touring opportunities in Europe, and those networks that involve deputies across the continent.

She noted that US bands come to the UK as first port of call before touring Europe, in order to rehearse, but also to team up with the crew of technicians and hauliers they’ll employ across their European tours. But British hauliers will now be limited to making just three stops in Europe, and the huge costs of carnets for equipment, and road crews needing working visas, if they exist, will act as disincentives. A colleague, Sam, “had some work in Spain pre and post Xmas, but in January he had to give it up because the orchestra couldn’t get the paperwork to employ him.” Despite government claims to the contrary, “the paperwork doesn’t exist.”

Emmy and BAFTA-award-winning composer Howard Goodall further fleshed out the impact of Brexit on grander projects, talking about how Game of Thrones (GoT), the biggest cable TV smash ever, was partly produced in Northern Ireland with EUR 10 million in funding from regional development funds, amid location shoots right across Europe, and post-production centred in London. However, due to Brexit, “that model can’t work, and will move elsewhere.” The blooming industry of TV series and film-making, being massively expanded by Netflix, Amazon and others, and EU co-funding are making massive deals that “we can’t be included in,” and he cites his production partner in GoT who has “moved everything to Berlin to use the same network we used to have here”. As Worth noted, the UK is the home of world-class training for musicians, among other skills, and as such the UK “used to be the base for film scores, tapping Europe,” Goodall said, but again, “that is a tranche of work that’ll go elsewhere.”

The pandemic has already put all these people, from musicians to lighting crews to wig-makers out of work for over a year, and how this very complicated web of transactions, economic and cultural exchanges will exist post-pandemic isn’t yet clear. But for sure, “there’s not enough work in the UK, there isn’t an orchestra in every small town,” Murphy said. They need that market of 400 million people in Europe, costs make it simply not viable to sustain the same with Thailand or Australia, but now with visa costs, equipment carnets, and health insurance, the profits from Europe are gone.

“Music is a canary in the coalmine for all other service sectors and our economy is services. Take photos, be a model, repair a machine, a huge number of things. Sector after sector, business after business, will find that what was easy will now be very difficult and unviable,” said Goodall, and for the sake of a blue passport that has a fraction of its former worth. “You’re not going to be asked to do a job without an EU passport,” Goodall observed. “We as a country, our workforce is disadvantaged in a way that’s already happening.”

……..

What is to be done? Going back to Jon Worth. Unfortunately, from the European perspective, the ‘coherence’ of the EU leaders, the Parliament and the Commission, in dealing with Brexit has waned, Worth said. Versus the pandemic and contemplation of restructuring long-term within the EU, “Brexit is a lower-level priority,” with no-one in the EU seriously thinking about re-join, or even softening relations. He cited the UK’s portrayal in Germany’s public debate, where the UK is seen as a ”slightly malevolent country on edge of Europe, to be managed, not a relationship to be repaired”.

David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, was more diplomatic in tone in his own keynote speech, but alluded to the notion of the EU’s mind being elsewhere: “We are in a process of internal reflection, our internal evolution” and this will itself impact on EU-UK relations. 

Turning to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)  which was negotiated at record speed, with no time to fully understand it before the 1 January cliff-edge; the implementation of what there is will be complex, although even then it lacks provisions regarding foreign policy and security, “many items are unfinished business,” he said. As per Lucas’ optimism over Erasmus, the UK can indeed re-join that at any time as a third country, with “the interests of both sides to maintain close and lasting cooperation in many fields, especially in an increasingly unstable world”. Still: no free-trade agreement can match EU membership or participation in the Single Market.

Even before the European Parliament meets to ratify the agreement, it will be late April before it is translated into all 24 languages. Even then the Parliament’s plenary vote date has not been decided as “we lack clarity regarding the UK government’s intentions on Ireland and NI.” The NI protocol is integral to the TCA but the UK Government’s unilateral extension of the grace periods governing the Irish Sea borders were “violations of the relevant substance of and good faith, [the] second time UK Govt set to breach international law.” The TCA is international law and is fully binding on both sides of the Channel, and while the EU may allow flexibilities regarding business, and citizens, to be prepared for Brexit, “unfortunately the UK Govt has chosen the slippery slope of acting outside the protocol”, all while the EUP has yet to ratify said TCA. 

The TCA has provisions for dialogue, and scope to set up partnership bodies for the EU and UK parliaments to exchange views. Already the Speakers of the EUP and the Commons have corresponded to begin such processes, which the EUP welcomes. This is a “new era” of EU-UK relations, “the UK remains a partner”, and “Parliamentarians need to keep these channels open” to deepen and broaden the partnership.

However: “Success depends on good will on both sides to maintain it,” he said, warning: “Escalating the situation is not the way forward.”

Further to that, Fiona Godfrey of the 3million and Luke Piper of the British in Europe hosted a fringe session on citizens’ rights, and talked through their approach to the calamity. Some 60% of Britons in Europe were disenfranchised in the 2016 referendum, having had no vote, Godfrey noted. “We were disenfranchised from Brexit and that’s what enabled it to happen.” They had no voice at the ballot, and they had no voice afterwards. Hence, she, an otherwise ordinary citizen, found herself in 2017 banding together with others, with activists, academics, policy makers, but fundamentally ordinary people thrown into a crisis not of their own making, and having to learn to fight and secure their rights and those of others.

From the outset, they sought to ensure they would work together in solidarity to pool their expertise and learn from one another. “We identified what we had in common and not, we sought pragmatic solutions, we always trusted one another. Communication is key.”

Keeping the rights they had before Brexit was critical to continue their lives, as Leave had (falsely) promised would be the case. Even so, “we realised early on negotiations would be far more difficult and traumatic than expected.” Trust began to evaporate as soon as June 2017 when the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations started, long before Johnson’s prominence grew. “The tenor changed,” Godfrey said, which impacted them immediately. “We were made very much aware we would be third-country nationals.”

They would have to ring-fence their rights should negotiations fail, as for example they so often nearly did, and may yet still over NI, and fight to have their rights enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement, if not ring-fenced in another mini-agreement between the EU and UK. Indeed, the rationale was Citizens’ Rights would be the rallying point to keep negotiations going:  “If this all goes pear shaped, and we can’t agree on NI, and we get a No Deal, the only way we’ll come back together is Citizens’ Rights”, Godfrey recalled arguing.

The British in Europe and representatives for the 3 million Europeans in the UK would have lobby days in Brussels and Westminster. They drew up a strategy and arranged to meet with the key people: Barnier in Brussels, the Citizens’ Rights team in the Article 50 task force, MEPs from numerous groups (particularly the Greens, the Renew Group, the Lib Dems and the SNP), Lambert and Verhofstadt at the EUP, and the European Commission, they met with whoever needed be met across Brussels.

“We had to make them make us a priority. We got access and we had to be tenacious, thick skinned, passionate. We were volunteers, grass roots, telling the stories of our members, EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EEA and Switzerland and how it was impacting us, our livelihoods, our lives, re healthcare, and access to benefits. But for all their work and support for it, we would go into meetings with EU commissioners only to be told “you will be third-country nationals”. “So, you have to be passionate and tenacious,” Piper said. 

Outstanding support came from the MEP Jude Kirton-Darling who spoke for them in the European Parliament, “which was very touching”. Also of great help was Jeremy Morgan QC; the volunteers had to learn the laws and make their case” in the face of what is a rules-based organisation.” Learning the laws was ”incredibly hard work… incredibly time consuming. You have to know you have to put it in. not very sexy”. But it paid off, something this Government seems wilfully unaware of.  “Whether the Government doesn’t know how the EU operates or Frost is playing games, but they’re [the EU] rules-based, and if you want something that doesn’t fit its laws, its legal system, you won’t get it. EU policy won’t change. Only if what you want fits in their legal system, then you have a good chance.”

Fundamentally though, it was “never an intellectual exercise, nor can it be, to get our message across.” And that involves telling the stories of the millions of people affected. And it is these stories “from so many people, and their experiences”, bringing them to the media, translating those stories into action, that have become critical to further bridge building. An effort realised by the group developing its own voice and brand. Still, getting these stories out has been difficult, for which throughout, “passion has been fundamental”.

There have been failures and successes. Though a “hazy memory” now, the key win by their joint efforts was the Costa Amendment, in which the House of Commons were moved even amid its own most fevered, toxic environment, to vote to ring-fence EU Citizens’ Rights in what was their sole act of unity, and which came about due to “what we did as a team and our hard work, grass roots, gathering intelligence and evidence, and encouraging MPs to look at this and get behind it.” The group has twice given evidence to the House of Commons’ specialised committees” Piper noted.

The UK has not yet proven adequacy regarding the transfer of data from the UK to the EU, and the group is working on exemptions and the fineries of UK and European data protection laws. Even so, “immigration officers can withhold information from immigrants if it’s in their interest.” EU citizens lack any physical document of proof of their settled-status and the British in Europe face similar problems.  “There’s a lot to do,” Piper said.

Realising what works, identifying opportunities, working for, and allying towards reciprocity in Citizens’ Rights rather than holding out for unilateral exceptions has worked. They’ve learned the importance of and means to building alliances, learned who to trust, and who not to trust, this the UK Government is bearing out.  “There’s no trust, as the UK is reneging on its agreements and key principles.” Whereupon the group is now becoming a bridge. “The EUP is coming to us while they mull ratifying the deal … I think we are absolutely key to this process in some ways. Engage with us and support us. We try to remove barriers, and we’ll continue to try while implementation is taking place,” Godfrey said. 

Still. “Brexit will begin in earnest for EU and UK citizens at the end of June when the grace period ends and the relationship begins properly,” Piper said. “Things are very difficult at the moment, and we’re essentially waiting for the worst of it to come.” As Kate Smart had said earlier, the grim realities faced by Europeans in the UK and Britons in Europe looming ever larger, raising awareness of the problems faced by European citizens in the UK and Brits in Europe, faced employers, landlords, and service providers will become more important than ever.

Of great poignancy were talks with MEPs, some former citizens of East Germany, one Austrian diplomat who told of the chaotic impact the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire post-WWI had had on his grandparents. Conference heard of the Polish battling for their rights through Solidarity; the Estonians deported to Siberia in the 1940s who had to find their own way back, and of the Lithuanians who formed a ring around their Parliament. Their moral: “All these moments of history, you will live through it, come out the other side. So, you will live through it. In the UK are so many people [British and from across Europe and the world], who have lived through upheavals in the last 30, 40 years. So many people have lived through similar. Talk to them, and learn from them, learn from the huge resilience found in these communities.”

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