August 3, 2018
(Update: A kind reader noted that a good place to keep track of developments for Brtions in Europe is the website British in Europe)
INTRODUCTION (scroll down for the interview)
After stints in London, Harare and Mexico City, Her Majesty’s Ambassador (HMA) to Slovenia, Sophie Honey, could have expected her first such position to be an easy training run for further diplomatic postings, with little to worry about except where to source tea and perhaps the occasional British tourist falling into the Ljubljanica after a cultural misunderstanding.
But then came the referendum on June 23, 2016, with the morning after gifting a hangover that only seems to worsen with time. The love it, hate it, can’t ignore it Brexit, a long story that I won’t recount here, instead jumping ahead to how things stood when I met HMA Honey to find out about her upcoming tour of Slovenia to explain to British nationals their status with regard to citizens’ rights and their country’s decision to leave the EU.
It seemed so simple. The ballot paper that started it all. Source: Wikipedia
The man many hold responsible for securing the Leave vote, Boris Johnson, the casual racist and commited adulterer in an ill-fitting suit and fright wig who as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph did so much to lay the groundwork for anti-EU sentiment back in the early 1990s, had recently stepped down as Foreign Secretary – standing up Slovenia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Miro Cerar, as well as other regional leaders who had travelled to London for the Western Balkans Summit – quitting over the so-called “Chequers deal”.
The agreement, which Prime Minister Theresa May’s full Cabinet supported for less than 48 hours, was the latest in the British government’s attempts to ignore the EU’s various red lines with regard to no special treatment for the UK and no cherry-picking of the rules. This policy, the unreality of which underlay many of the ill-informed, misleading or duplicitous claims of the Leave campaign, was perhaps best summed up by Mr Johnson, who once stated "My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it," aka “cakeism”. (While the months since the referendum have been unproductive in terms of practical policy from London, they have at least spawned a cottage industry in neologisms.)
The fact that the UK government had spent slightly more than two years after the referendum trying to reach agreement on what, exactly, Brexit means, and that the resulting document was then subjected to immediate debate, amendment and disdain, from both Leavers and Remainers, as well as outright rejection, once again, and predictably, by Brussels – being, in essence, the warmed-up left-overs of previously vetoed offers, dressed in new terms and further demands for cake and cherries – leaves the UK facing the growing likelihood of what’s termed a no-deal or cliff-edge Brexit.
This differs from a hard Brexit in that the latter means the UK would leave the Single Market and Customs Union while having negotiated some form of free trade deal with the EU that also covers the Irish border, citizens’ rights and so on. In contrast, no deal, meaning nothing signed by March 28 2019, would mean that the UK crashes out of the EU, with all agreements signed when Britain was part of the Union now invalid, and no plans for the future relationship beyond “WTO terms”.
There are two camps with regard to what happens next if a no-deal Brexit occurs. On one side committed Leavers, who feel that Britain would then be freed of the supposed restraints currently imposed by membership of the EU to seek new opportunities around the world. On the other the vast majority of lawyers, businesspeople, diplomats, civil servants and much maligned “experts” who claim that things would become very bad, very fast. A no-deal Brexit would not only hit imports and exports, with all items crossing the border now requiring paperwork and inspections, as well as renegotiations of quotas and so on – no small thing in this age of international, just-in-time supply chains and Britain outsourcing most its food production – but also ground flights to and from the UK, as well as a whole host of other vaguely post-apocalyptic consequences.
Indeed, on the day before I met with HMA Honey to find out what Brexit means for UK nationals living in Slovenia the government in London was suggesting that companies and private individuals consider stockpiling supplies of food and medicine ahead of time, with Mr Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, promising to ensure "there is adequate food supply" in the case of no deal. (Those interested in what a no-deal Brexit could mean for the UK food supply are directed to this possible scenario laid out by Ian Dunt, the man behind the informative book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?).
Still, outside of Remainiacs there seems to be a broad assumption “they” will sort it out, although “they” in this case are exactly the same crew who spent the last two years disagreeing on what Brexit means, only to agree at Chequers, see above, then disagree 48 hours later, and then produce a document that pleases no one and is doomed. (We should also note that the Withdrawal Agreement that was signed with the EU in December 2017 (summary and analysis), and which represents the most progress yet made towards a post-Brexit deal, remains in limbo, with many of its articles in dispute between Brussels and London, and the whole thing governed by the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” – the trigger for no deal.)
To bring things up to date, and further set the context for my interview with HMA Honey – which, I promise, is coming – on July 29 The Sunday Times reported that “Plans agreed at the Chequers cabinet summit to publish reports every week through the summer detailing what a “no-deal Brexit” would mean for Britain have been scrapped — after warnings that the public would panic and never vote Conservative again”; while yesterday, August 2, the Governor of the Bank of England said the chance of no deal was “uncomfortably high”, telling the BBC that the Bank was planning for a worst case scenario that would see “real-estate prices going down by more than a third, interest rates going up by almost 4 percentage points, unemployment rising to 9 percent, and the economy going into a 4 percent recession.”
FAIR WARNING TO SLOVENES IN THE UK
I should point out that I forgot to ask HMA Honey what Brexit would or could mean for Slovene and other EU nationals in the UK, but in broad terms they’re in much the same position as the British in Europe – “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Thus while their interests, like those of Brexpats, are said to be a priority, there’s little currently on offer but tea and sympathy, with the recent Windrush scandal a reminder that even with a deal things could go badly wrong for those who assume they have “settled status”. However, the action group The 3 Million, its name a reference to the rough number of EU nationals currently living in the UK, is a good place to look for information on that side of things. You can get some idea of how they feel about the Chequers deal and resulting Brexit White Paper (BBC summary here) by examining their list of 162 unanswered questions with regard to the issue of settled status, which can be found in PDF form here.
Now let’s get to the heart of this story, the interview in two parts, with an intermission, followed by my conclusion and an addendum, an open letter from HMA Honey.
THE INTERVIEW, part one
TSN: You have quite an EU background working for the Minister of Europe and then at the Treasury on financial services and the Single Market, so this must be an interesting time for you.
HMA: It is, definitely. When I came here in 2015 I had a sense that European politics was getting more interesting, although I didn’t know quite how interesting it would get from the perspective of a British diplomat. So this role is turning out to be rather different than expected, because of Brexit, but it’s a great job because the views of every member state are important as we try to reach a positive outcome.
TSN: What is the Embassy doing to keep British citizens informed about Brexit, as it affects their lives in Slovenia?
TSN: Is the status of the Embassy going to change once the UK leaves the EU?
HMA: The state of the Embassy won’t change in any significant way. The UK will no longer be part of the EU but we want to have a close relationship with EU partners, including Slovenes. In some ways this means the role of the Embassy becomes more important because we have to work harder to achieve this. We’ve already had some expansion to facilitate this. We recently had an extra UK-based diplomat joining us, and we expect another member of staff in the autumn.
This is related to the priority that the British government is placing on Europe, our relationships with the EU, and delivering a successful outcome to the Brexit negotiations. So a number of British embassies across the EU have expanded in the last 18 months, two years.
Working on Brexit is obviously of one our biggest priorities. Our role is to support the negotiations, and to make sure that the Slovene government is aware of the proposals that the British have made. For us it’s important to stay in touch with the business community and British nationals. But we also work on security and NATO issues and to build on bilateral trade.
TSN: At present Slovenia doesn’t allow dual citizenship, except in special circumstances (such as for those born abroad with Slovenian heritage). Germany is the same, but it recently announced a draft law that would give British residents the opportunity to have dual status, and so not lose their EU citizenship. Have you discussed anything like this with the Slovenian government?
HMA: We don’t expect any change on the citizenship rules, but of course we’re in touch with the Slovene government about the Withdrawal Agreement that was reached in December on various issues, including citizens’ rights. The agreement ensures continuity for British citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK, and that will apply to people who arrive to Slovenia until the end of the implementation period [aka the transition period, currently due to run until December 31, 2020].
TSN: What rights will be guaranteed under that agreement?
HMA: British nationals who are resident here, their rights will remain the same. So to continue living here, working here, studying here, having access to social security, to education for their children, and to healthcare. That’s all set out under the agreement. It’s really important to know that all UK nationals who have been residing in Slovenia for three months and wish to continue to live here through self-sufficient means, or wish to continue studying or working here, should legalise their status by registering. This is a long-standing requirement and will enable the Slovene authorities to know who is eligible for that continuation of rights. [Further information on how to do this can be found here.]
TSN: Is the Withdrawal Agreement that was signed in December contingent on there not being a hard Brexit?
HMA: Well, the Foreign Secretary [now Jeremy Hunt] was speaking in Berlin and Paris recently about the need to make progress and avoid no deal scenario by accident. But citizens’ rights have been a priority for the British government, the Commission and the EU member states really since the start of the negotiations, providing certainty to citizens. The rights of UK nationals living in Slovenia will be protected now, during the implementation period and beyond.
TSN: And is that a binding agreement, no matter happens with regard to a hard Brexit?
HMA: I think it’s very unlikely that will be reopened, as it was agreed early on and meets the requirements of both sides in terms of providing security for citizens.
TSN: What about onward free movement, the right for a UK citizen in Slovenia to freely move to, say, Italy, to live, work and study?
HMA: That’s still part of the negotiations, so that isn’t yet decided. Up until the end of the transition period that right to free movement will continue, but beyond that it’s part of the negotiations on the future arrangements.
TSN: So the summary is that British citizens who are residents here don’t need to worry about any big changes yet?
HMA: Obviously we are doing are utmost to reach an agreement and avoid a no deal scenario, and the UK has just put forward some proposals on the future relationship and discussing those with the Commission, so an agreement can be reached in October. People do ask what if there no deal, and it’s also true that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, but both sides have put real focus into providing certainty for citizens, so I think it’s unlikely in a no deal scenario that that would be reopened.
It was at this point I realised, but of course, that HMA Honey perhaps knew more than I did but was able to say much less. My lips trembled, dear reader, with my future hanging in the balance, and I turned to other topics.
INTERVIEW, part two
TSN: What are some of the non-Brexit things you’ve been working on?
HMA: Well, the trade relationship between the UK and Slovenia and helping businesses make connections is another important part of the Embassy’s work. That’s helping British companies who want to export to Slovenia find opportunities here, but also supporting Slovene investment in the UK and businesses that want to enter the UK market. Obviously that’s closely linked to Brexit, and one of the reasons we want to continue having close links in the future to ensure prosperity in Britain and the EU countries.
Slovene bilateral trade with the UK is not huge, but indirect trade is important because of the supply chains that exist right across Europe. And there are big sectors, like infrastructure, railways and nuclear power, where Britain has expertise that’s useful in Slovenia, but there are all sorts of small and medium enterprises in both countries that export to each other in various sectors. There are big firms like PWC or GSK, but also some very specialist firms with rather niche partnerships.
Beyond trade, we also work closely with Slovenia on security issues, and our partnership within NATO. When there was the Salisbury incident [the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal] we were talking to all our EU partners on that, and got a strong statement from the European Council. We also work together on the Western Balkans, because both Slovenia and the UK have an interest in that region, with Prime Minister Cerar attending the Western Balkan Conference in London a few weeks ago.
TSN: What about cultural exchanges?
TSN: Finally, what are some things you’ve enjoyed while here, non-work related?
HMA: It’s interesting that when you live somewhere for a while you start to adopt new habits. So in my family we’re now used to salads with every meal, and the culture of soup as the first course, which my kids insist has to come with jušne kroglice [crouton balls]. The outdoors life is another big thing in Slovenia, and we also enjoy going out, hiking, and seeing nature. We get out of town sometimes for short trips, but we like Tivoli a lot, my kids love Lumpi Park, and just going downtown, walking by the river, going to the market, having a coffee, those sorts of things.
TSN: So you’ve made the move from tea to coffee?
HMA: I alternate between tea and coffee, but there's still quite a lot of tea going on. My partner, Peter, has a “tea tax” on any visitors we get, so they have to bring some Yorkshire Tea, although I really like Čajna hiša [at Stari trg 3, Ljubljana].
TSN: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
HMA: You're welcome.
HMA Honey was generous with her time, and as seen above offered reassurances whenever possible that the interests of people like me, British nationals in Europe, were of concern, but it still seems that when it comes to Brexit nobody knows what will happen next month, never mind March 30th, 2019, or January 1st 2021.
All that’s certain in my mind – and this is not the opinion of HMA Honey, who remains a resolute optimist – is that we’re seeing history being made in what appears to be a slow motion car crash speeding up as the point of impact approaches, the kind of event those of us who were too young to live through the Suez Crisis (1956) – born, say, after The Beatles’ last LP, and much less likely to vote Leave than our parents and grandparents – the kind of event that, like Suez, will see a decisive change in Britain’s status and role in the world, part of the long, post-imperial decline and reordering of things.
Voting by age, from yougov.co.uk
Indeed, while Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and other leading lights of the Leave camp once spoke in glowing terms of the wonderful future a post-Brexit Britain would soon enjoy, the last name on that list recently suggested it might take 50 years to see the benefits. Others, faced with the prospect of an increasing number of businesses starting to relocate in the next few months if a no-deal (or even hard) Brexit seems likely, and investors then moving out of the UK in the new year, are reviving the stab-in-the-back narrative to explain the impending shitshow, with this perhaps more familiar to some readers in the original German (Dolchstoßlegende). Lest this seem rather hysterical, consider the following tweet from a Conservative MEP, David Bannerman – which as far as I’m aware went unremarked by the Prime Minister – and the fact that defeat and humiliation are rarely dealt with in a rational manner by those that brought such calamities onto their nations.
In summary, and sadly for those of you who read this article hoping for some closure, we have another few months of indecision and bluff, and then those of us who took up the opportunities offered by an outward-looking, optimistic Britain that was able, if not always eager, to play a key role at the heart of Europe, will at last find out what Brexit means for us.
So if you do happen to go along to one of these upcoming Tea with the Ambassador events, be kind and don’t push too far with your questions. Our sympathies lie with HMA Sophie Honey at this difficult time.
A letter from the Ambassador to British Nationals in Slovenia (posted on Facebook August 2, 2018)
Update for British Nationals in Slovenia
Over the last year I have met many of you across Slovenia to discuss what the UK’s departure from the European Union means for British nationals. One of the most important parts of my role in Slovenia is to understand your views, answer your questions, and to update you on the latest with Brexit negotiations. As part of this process, I wanted to let you know that I will be hosting two regional meetings on 28 August in Murska Sobota and Maribor. Further details about these can be found on our Facebook page or by reply to this letter. I really look forward to seeing you there.
I am also looking to finalise a date in September for those of you in or around the Primorska region and will be hosting as many of you as possible at my Residence this year in November for drinks and supper. More details on those soon.
I know that many of you will have been following latest Brexit developments closely, so I wanted to give you the latest on the key issues. Good progress has been made since the UK Government reached an agreement with the European Union on citizens’ rights in December. UK nationals and their family members covered by the agreement will continue to have the same access as they currently do to healthcare, pensions and other benefits and be able to leave their Member State of residence for up to 5 years without losing their right to return. The UK and European Commission will now continue to negotiate on the detail of these agreements, to be included in the overall Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU which will come in to effect after we leave the EU on 29 March 2018.
What has happened in the negotiations between the EU and the UK?
From the beginning of this process, Prime Minister Theresa May has been clear that safeguarding the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU, is her first priority for the negotiations. In December last year the UK and the European Commission reached a comprehensive agreement on reciprocal protection of UK and Union citizens’ rights. In March this year, the Commission and the UK announced that the commitments made in December had been translated into legal text. We also agreed the terms of a time-limited implementation period until 31 December 2020 which will give citizens like you more time to make any preparations. This marks an important step towards finalising the full Withdrawal Agreement.
What does that mean in practice?
The agreement means that as UK nationals living in Slovenia, you and your family members will be able to carry on living your lives as you do now. You will be able to carry on living, working or studying in Slovenia for as long as you want to. Your rights to remain in Slovenia will be protected now, during the implementation period and beyond. You will continue (now and in the future) to be able to access entitlements to social security on the same basis as Slovene citizens living in Slovenia. You will be entitled to have your social security contributions made before and after exit in the UK, or in another Member State, count towards a future UK or EU member state pension. Your children will continue to enjoy access to education on the same basis that Slovene children do. In short, most of what you do (or are entitled to do) on a daily basis will not change.
What is still to be agreed?
Citizens’ rights remains an important issue in our discussions about our future relationship with the EU. We have secured the right for you to continue living your life as you do now. But we would also like to discuss with the EU27 future life choices. For example the right to onward free movement should you wish to move to another EU Member State? Other areas that we still wish to discuss include the provisions for posted workers, and mutual recognition of qualifications.
Arrangements for travel between the UK and EU beyond 2020 are also being discussed during the second phase of the negotiations. But we already know that up to 31 December 2020 you and your EU family members will continue to be able to travel to the UK as you do now. In some cases where you have resided in an EU Member State for at least three months, your non-EU family members may also travel with you to the UK (please see the links below for more information).
Some UK nationals have raised concerns about what happens if an overall deal between the EU and the UK is not reached. The UK Government does not want or expect a no deal outcome and both it and the Commission have stated that providing certainty for citizens is a priority. We believe it would be very unlikely for any agreed deal on citizens’ rights to be reopened.
What preparations should you be making for the future?
The British Government has been clear that we will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 and that there will be a time-limited implementation period until 31 December 2020. We have agreed with the Commission that you will have a further 6 months after that period (i.e. until 30 June 2021) to make any necessary preparations according to what is required in the final Withdrawal Agreement.
All UK nationals who have been residing in Slovenia for 3 months and wish to continue to live here through self-sufficient means, or wish to continue studying or working here, should legalise their status by registering. This is a long-standing requirement. Further information on how to do this can be found here.
The Slovene government along with other member states are now making plans for the practical elements of applying the Withdrawal Agreement. This includes any administrative procedures UK nationals will need to follow after our departure from the EU. We have been told that your residence documentation will be very similar to what you have now and we are working closely with the Slovene government to ensure information is provided to UK nationals in a timely manner. We will also publish information provided by the Slovene Government when this becomes available.
What if I/my family decide to move back to the UK?
If you wish to move back to the UK, you and your family members (both EU citizens and in some cases non-EU citizens), will be able to do so until 31 December 2020. After that date, the UK Immigration Rules will apply where your family member is not a UK national. The UK Government will be setting out initial proposals for our future immigration arrangements in due course. The UK’s departure from the EU does not change nationality law and therefore the processes for registering children and applying for British passports remain the same. UK nationals are able to travel or return to the UK at any time, including after 31 December 2020.
Will I have to pay tax in two countries?
The UK’s exit from the European Union will not change existing double taxation agreements. Double taxation agreements ensure that any individual (not just a British citizen) who is living in a country which has a treaty with the UK will not pay tax in two countries on the same income/gain and determines which country has primary taxing rights. The UK has a double taxation agreement with all EU Member States, which will continue to apply on withdrawal.
Will driving licences still be valid after exit day?
The validity of UK driving licences in the EU and other Member State licences in the UK, forms part of the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship. As such we cannot answer this yet, but the discussions on the future relationship are underway.
Please do follow our Facebook pages and Embassy website where we continue to upload further information on Brexit matters and links to latest information on citizens’ rights, which can be found here.
I look forward to meeting with as many of you as possible, either on 28 August, during September or at my Residence in November.