I wasn’t entirely sure about attending the UK Embassy’s Brexit Q & A last month but in the end it came down to an exercise in reassurance. And a room full of about five hundred other Brits facing comparatively the same uncertainties seemed like a good place to immerse myself unnoticed whilst trying to make sense of the prevailing mood. I admit a degree of curiosity did play its part with some unknown force urging me to get up close to people I rarely encounter. But the meeting offered the perfect outlet to humanise the Brexit experience. To see and hear a bunch of my compatriots, all with different reasons for being in Vienna yet connected through fate by the Damocles inspired peril of future rights and a no-deal.
This is what this two-hour meeting was all about, to listen to representatives of the British and Austrian governments explain what would happen in the event of a no-deal and the impact on Brits living in Austria. And so proceedings began with the usual waffle from the Embassy reiterating the UK government’s commitment to reaching a deal (collective groan), although fortuitously there was no mention this time of the dreaded “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. But then it was the turn of the Austrian government with two presentations from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in which they explained future rights concerning residency and access to the social security system.
I won’t go into all the details here (you can get these at the website specially set up by the Austrian government) but the general gist was that if there is no-deal, then all Brits will revert to *whisper it* “third country status”. Put simply, we will lose our automatic rights under existing EU law, because such rights as an EU citizen will disappear overnight on the 29th March in the event of falling over that much talked about cliff. This means Brits in Austria will be rounded up and deported on specially charted barges and sent back to Britain. No, wait, this means Brits in Austria will need to apply for a new residence permit because (cue heart wrenching piano music) the Austrians want us to very much stay. The permits on offer, depending on specific circumstances and I suppose relationship with Austria, will be a “Red-White-Red-White-Plus” card, which has to be renewed every year, or a Settled Status-EU designation, aimed at people who have been here longer and probably plan to stay (valid for five years but requiring more “stringent” paperwork).
What immediately struck me about Austrian position was how relaxed they seemed about the prospect of a no-deal. Of course, like everyone in the room, including the elephant and to be fair, the British officials, they would have been more than happy for the problem to just disappear or, failing that, a deal concluded with the minimum of fuss, thus hastening the traditional and rapid withdrawal to the Heuriger. Yet they delivered their presentations with clarity, eloquence and humour which was a marked contrast to the Brit’s on tour who looked tired, haggard and in need of some UVA radiation to bring life back to their scared, pallid faces. (I also got the impression from the UK diplomats that they were holding back some terrible truth about Brexit. Almost as if they really knew what shit was coming.)
In part, this also explained why I felt a profound sense of guilt for the Austrians, who had been essentially press-ganged into fixing the problems unleashed by the incompetence of the British government and their lack of anything resembling a plan. Because that is exactly what the Austrian government had, a plan, spelling out exactly – more or less – what we will have to do in the event of a post-Brexit no-deal. Their message couldn’t have been clearer: we want you to stay and we want to make it as easy as possible for you to stay, and we don’t want too much hassle so we are going to make it as easy as possible so we can get back to the important issues of the day (going to the Heuriger). In short there is a system set in place to deal with kein-deal and means that if you are in the system, if you are already part of the fabric of Austrian social-economic life, then a no-deal will mean not much will really change after 29th March. Aside for the need to reacquaint ourselves with the immigration office as the previous “permanent settled status” document we were all corralled to acquire in the last months, will need to be exchanged.
Now individual circumstances will vary of course but the main fear or possible tricky part ahead could concern any Brit living in Austria who is still medically insured by the British system. With no legal basis for reciprocal healthcare costs assuming a no-deal, these Brits will face a dilemma: either take out private insurance or make voluntary contributions to the state insurance scheme (they quoted a figure of about 400 Euro per month). Whatever you views on the viability of this, and it could cause real problems, at least it offers a chance to take stock and plan. Indeed, it might not be perfect and it is certainly undesirable (my most diplomatic word to describe Brexit) but at least the Austrian path (always well swept) offers a semblance of what will happen.
I know I seem to be banging on about this with undeserved gusto but I mention and emphasise it because it exposes the contrasting paralysis of the British officials. And so after some short words from the UK Ambassador, comprising of the usual groundhog day stuff about the UK government working on the premise of a deal, we are reminded to get our paperwork in order and most critically of all (and something which says a lot about how little they can actually tell you) make sure we have exchanged our driving licences. Oh yes, and to hang out with other British people and exchange information because apparently we are a valuable source of knowledge and support, in the sense we are privy to the same mixed messages as anyone else and everyone has a different story just to complicate matters. In any case, as a British ambassador, he should know that British people rarely talk to strangers unless we are stranded on a train.
It was interesting that his Majesty’s representative didn’t stay for the Q & A, instead leaving his minions to soak up the simpering frustration in the room. And so we got the many expected questions about highly individual circumstances which were partly relevant, partly not, although my favourite was the one asked of the interior ministry if they could fast-track the UK applications. “Er no,” came the reply (preceded by a slight giggle) which I interpreted as, “Look people, once you are a third country, you are a third country”. And then as sure as the Opera Ball eluded me for another year, along came the drip-drip of comments more centred on the Brexit shambles and the British government approach. Which I thought was a bit unfair on the civil servants from Austria who hadn’t signed up for a late afternoon bit of Brexit bashing. So, at that point, it was time to leave.
Three weeks on we are none the wiser what will happen with Brexit but I left that meeting feeling oddly relieved. Thinking about it on my way to the pub (so predictable) I realised that it provided some transparency for the first time. We had the Austrian government essentially telling us not to worry, your rights will be protected. And it left me thinking I don’t want an extension now – it simply prolongs the uncertainty. I don’t want a no-deal like any more than I would choose to sit in a hot-tub with my German neighbour. But now it feels inevitable and I would prefer a clear, quick decision. Then we can move on and make the best of whatever happens. And then de-camp to the wine tavern and plot a route, by no means a certainty, to potential citizenship. But until then there is only one thing left to do: keep calm and have a G’spritzer.
© 2019 RJ Barratt