“Mass depopulation now took place. Those of Caribbean and Subcontinental origin began returning to the more prosperous lands from which their great-great-grandparents had once arrived. Others looked to the United States, Canada, Australia and continental Europe; but the Old English were low on the list of desirable immigrants, being thought to bring with them the taint of failure. Europe, in a sub-clause to the Treaty of Verona withdrew from the Old English the right to free movement within the Union. Greek destroyers patrolled the Sleeve to intercept boat people. After this, depopulation slowed.”
Julian Barnes, England, England, 1998
It is commonly assumed that the most important first step in applying for “permanent settled status” in Austria, the delightfully called “Bescheinigung des Daueraufenthalts”, is to get your paperwork in order. And indeed there are a lot of important documents to track down. If you are in the gig economy like me you need originals and copies of: your passport, confirmation of your self-employment (your trade licence or company register entry), contracts, invoices (and proof of payments), tax returns and social insurance records to the SVA, the insurance company of the “businessman”. In addition to this there is also the ominous declaration that “other documents might be required”, all with the appropriate translation and apostil. So bring your marriage certificate, birth certificate, confirmation of civil partnership, details of divorce and, weirdly, a death certificate if you have one (how one would apply for settled status if dead is unclear, even by the confusing status of the Brexit negotiations which, if you remember, is the main reason Brits like me are now being forced to formalise our relationships with our adopted homelands).
In any case, just to be on the safe side, take your old birthday cards, receipts from Schweizerhaus and confirmation of subscriptions to the State Opera, season ticket for the Vienna Zoo, evidence you have been vaccinated against Zecken (ticks) and any old pictures of you with one of the following: Hanz Krankl, Nikki Lauda, Franz Klammer, Thomas Muster or Conchita Wurst.
The paperwork is of course significant. One missing sheet or a staple in the wrong place and you will be bundled out a back door of the Magistrat 35 (the immigration office) where you will be whisked away by a waiting van to a detention centre especially built for swinish multitudes from the UK. However, documents come second to organisation. Because the most important first step in applying for the right to permanent residence is to check the opening times of the Magistrat. Let me just say it is not open on Wednesdays and it pays to check this before you have already set off from home, boarded a bus, changed on to an underground line and only confirmed the address one more time because someone also mentioned another office in another district, and then found out that on Wednesdays they are geschlossen (closed).
And one more thing: it is imperative that you do not mention this to anyone at the Magistrat thinking it will garner sympathy or be perceived as an eccentricities of a affable Brit. On the contrary, it will be used as evidence of your undesirability and your application will go to the bottom of the pile usually reserved for any accession nations after 2005.
(Just for anyone interested, the opening times of the office dealing with citizens from countries within the EU and Switzerland are: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 08.00 – 12.00 with an extra half day on Thursday from 15.30 – 17.00).
And so my second attempt began with two bulging files. One containing every piece of important documentation pertaining to my forty plus years on plant earth (although I decided in the end not to take my primary school reports, immunisation booklet from childhood and membership card to Riki-Tiks, the coolest bar in London in 1995); and the second one containing years of bank statements.
My destination was the immigration office in the 12th district, Fachbereich Einwanderung Referat 5.0 – Außenstelle EWR (Immigration Department for foreigner class 2) on the Arndstraße. There is not much to say about this part of Vienna but you are in Meidling, the home district of current Chancellor of Austria – and a man who makes Vladimir Putin look tiny, because he is – Sebastian Kurz. Nearby is the shopping paradise of Meidlingerhaupstrasse (a place never once mentioned in the millions of words written in tourist guides to Vienna) and over the back is the Meidlingermarkt, a half-decent, authentic outer-district market still not corrupted by the pursuit of gastronomy, the stench of wasabi and coloured crystallised fruits (see Naschmarkt ad infinitum).
On this second attempt, I arrive at 7.45 in the morning. It is wonderfully fresh and pleasingly there are only about twelve people in front of me, six of them smoking. One of these upstanding citizens-of-somewhere is also combining their cigarette with a can of Red Bull. It is a wonderful spectacle thus confirming to all present that the true Viennese version of breakfast is alive and well in the city. More encouragingly, the numbers do not appear too bad, so I pass the time counting the 734 discarded cigarette butts on the pavement and in the small grassed area outside. Of course, what I couldn’t see was that the front of the queue in fact snaked up to the first floor. This only became apparent at precisely eight o’clock as the doors were opened and I shuffled up the stairwell to claim ticket number fifty-one.
Inside I found a seat near the back in the waiting area and surveyed my predicament. The place was heaving, as was my stomach. Are there really this many people applying for registration and settled status in Vienna? Seemingly so but reassuringly the numbers moved relatively fast (one every minute). As I watched the numbers rise, I tried to guess which of the applicants in the room were British. The men with those monstrous little shoulder bags were quickly rejected, as was anyone in flip-flops and too much gold jewellery. The two queue jumping women who sneaked up in the lift bypassing the waiting throng were also discarded. But there behaviour was duly noted and I prayed their application would be mislaid, lost and then ceremoniously incinerated.
The ticketing system reminded me of the system of queuing at the deli in British supermarkets and I was tempted to enter my designated room and ask for some hummus, taramasalata and a few cuts of spam. Also, I think it would be more fun if instead of announcing your number with a gentle “bing-bong” on a flatscreen, they called out your ticket in the style of a bingo caller:
“Years of consecutive residence – number five!”
“Immigration officer knocking on your door – number twenty-four!”
“Billion Euro Brexit divorce bill – number forty-seven!”
“Brexit-Brit in the shit – number fifty-one!”
As the numbers climbed minute-by-minute, I realised I was feeling slightly nervous. This was inexplicable. I had all the paperwork, had lived in Austria since the late nineties and I was even thinking about buying some Lederhosen and red-checked shirt for the Weitra beer festival in July. But suddenly it was my turn and with an enthusiasm engendered by excitement and boredom, I leapt out of my seat and entered the hallowed interior of the Magistrat with the firm conviction that under no circumstances, I should attempt humour or a misplaced facetious comment.
Presenting myself at the desk of an impassive looking bureaucrat, I told her in my best German that I wanted to apply for settled status. “How long have you lived in Austria?” she questioned. Twenty years, I told her. Impassive look with slightly raised eyebrow. “Passport, please and tax return.” Thinking this was actually going to be easy, I handed over my documents. “You only have one year here. We need five consecutive years of tax returns and social insurance payments.” Shit. Slow brain, Robert, slow brain. Fast brain pipes up:
“It says nothing about “five years” in the explanatory notes, I protested in a voice that suggested the words “Oida, is des mühsam” were about to fill the room. “Only that I need a tax return and proof I am in the social insurance system, which I have.” Impassive look. “Bring me five years consecutive contributions, and you can get the confirmation of status today.”
Without the five years in my file I was temporarily shafted and grasped at that moment that I would have to come back after another sleepless night and queue again. In a word, I was vexed. And so just over an hour after I arrived, I left, cursing the Brexit inducing bastards back home and vowing to hunt down Farage, Johnson and Gove, make them wear tiny leather shorts and force-feed them pig fat on dark bread.
I returned about a week later on an even more sweltering day but this time I am the master (I arrive half an hour earlier). It meant a longer wait in the airless stairwell but I had moved up the charts and was now twenty-seventh in the queue. Half an hour after the doors opened, I was called in and greeted by very pleasant, accommodating young women with a smiling face (well, it was Friday). The same procedure ensued but this time it was passport and just my tax returns. Within five minutes I was issued with another ticket (the “B” version) and told to go to another counter and pay twenty-nine Euros (they should be paying me, I thought). Then it was off to another waiting area but not before I had to make a copy of my passport (there’s always bloody something).
Then I was summoned into another room where another lady, not friendly, not unfriendly, again went through my paperwork. However, at this stage she also wanted to see my social insurance payments for five years, my trade licence and my E-card (it provides access to Austrian healthcare). Copies all duly handed over, I signed my application and then it was passed to her colleague in the same room. And just as I thought everything was ready to roll, when I sensed I might be out of there in a matter of minutes clutching my elusive piece of paper conferring status, a slight hiccup:
“The second sheet of your tax return for 2016 is missing.” (Shit.) “Do you have it?” (Bugger.)
“Do I need it?”
“Well, all the other returns have a second sheet and it says here there should be a second sheet.”
(Slow brain, Robert, slow brain.)
“Look, I don’t have a second sheet, is it really necessary?” A few seconds passed only for the lady to then wave her hand and say, in a manner which suggested she wanted me leave and enjoy my weekend as much as her, “No, it’s okay.” And then she opened a drawer on her desk and pulled out a blank certificate which was placed in her printer. A few seconds later I had it in my hands and in truth, it was a mixture of relief and something akin to pride.
I skipped down the stairs vaguely triumphant and left the building disappointed not to see a wall of flashbulbs and microphones. Clearly it was not going to be my Chamberlain moment as he returned from Munich in 1938. But I vowed never to return although depending on what really happens with the Brexit deal, I have still not ruled out the possibility of Austrian citizenship at some later stage. When people now ask me about this, it is not that I really want to jettison my UK citizenship (because we are about to become a global trading nation, flourishing outside the EU, ruling the waves like in the good old days. And if anything, I am consistent in hedging my bets when things get a bit tricky). No, it is just that I don’t want the hassle of the paperwork, the application process and the costs. And so until that decision has to be made, I shall leave the last word to Julian Barnes, words which I fear sound jarringly familiar:
“After various attempts at rescue, Europe declined to throw good money after bad. There were some who saw a conspiracy in Europe’s attitude to a nation which had once contested the primacy of the continent; there was talk of historical revenge. It was rumoured that during a secret dinner at the Elysée the presidents of France, Germany and Italy had raised their glasses to the words, ‘It is not only necessary to succeed, it is necessary others fail.’”
© 2018 RJ Barratt