Amidst the shock and carnage of Brexit, Brits living in Brussels will be particularly shocked, and indeed horrified. An expat community is witnessing its own country tearing itself apart, lashing out in anger, inflicting pain and unleashing chaos on itself, but also on the rest of Europe. Adding to the shock for many is the questioning of our own identities: is this still the Britain that we left?
Beyond the political, economic, social and environmental questions, Brits in Brussels will eventually have their own concerns: what will become of them? Jobs, lives, families in Belgium have all been built by UK citizens taking advantage of the UK’s membership of the EU, so what will happen to them now? The statement of the (outgoing) UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Brits living abroad that, ‘there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances’ is hardly reassuring.
So what will the impact of Brexit be for those of us in the ‘Brussels bubble’?
The first harsh truth is that today, this is a very minor issue. The seismic shock of Brexit is so big that the minor rumblings of a few expats will have little impact on UK politics. Even when the question of UK citizens abroad rises up the agenda, the biggest issue will be the future of retirees in Spain, not working age expats in Brussels. This will be a long way down the list of priorities of the next British Prime Minister. And to be fair, for many British citizens working on EU issues in Brussels their own situation may be at the back of their minds today as they think of the impact on the UK, Europe, and the world.
The legal uncertainty is perhaps the biggest issue: will expat Brits still have the right to live and work in Belgium once the UK has left the EU? Of course, this depends upon the nature of the new UK/EU agreement. EEA membership would safeguard the right to work in Belgium. But it’s extremely difficult to see how the UK could keep out EU migrants from Britain, whilst retaining the right for UK citizens to work abroad. Brits have the right to Belgian citizenship after living in the country for more than five years, so that will be a solution of sorts for some. Many Brits, of course, already live in mixed nationality families, with intertwined lives that make a Brexit even more complex and threatening.
So what future for the diverse range of Brits in Brussels?
- The ‘Eurocrat’
Brits working within the EU Institutions are in a state of shock. There are implications for their lives and careers, but these are also people who are committed to an idea of Europe, and an idea of Britain’s relationship with the EU, which has just been put in question.
When the UK leaves, will they lose their jobs? Jean-Claude Juncker has already written to them to promise that he will fight for their jobs. But whilst their contracts may continue, they risk marginalization within the Institutions, with no senior roles allocated for Brits. Those on fixed-term contracts are most under threat. And those working for UK MEPs will clearly be looking for new careers after the next Parliament elections in 2019.
- The Lobbyist
Brits in Brussels have traditionally traded off two things: access and communication. For lobbyists within the public affairs agencies, uncertainty creates business. Expect a boom in the next couple of years for political lobbyists in Brussels as the convoluted process of negotiating a new UK / EU relationship begins. British lobbyists will be in demand, both from UK companies seeking to understand the regulatory impact of Brexit, and from EU companies who are concerned about their export markets and adapting to a new way of trading with the UK.
But at the same time, those dealing with the regular EU policy-making will take a hit. Who will employ a British lobbyist to steer a path through a legislative process that will not include the UK? The value of having British contacts in the EU Institutions has just gone through the floor. Understanding the Franco-German political axis will become more important, along with growing powers like Poland. So maybe it will be short-term gain for some, but long-term pain for all?
- The Communicator
The second advantage Brits have in Brussels is their ability to communicate in English. Unfair as it may seem, amongst all these polyglot Europeans the mono-lingual Brit is still valued for their ability to write in their mother tongue. English is likely to remain an important language in Brussels – within both political and business circles.
PR professionals, Communications Directors, writers and editors will all hope that their skills will remain bankable in a Brit-free EU. But whether they will have the right to continue to use those skills by working outside the UK is another question.
- The Facilitator
Brussels is full of trade associations, alliances, and coalitions, and the people who bring these groups together. British staffers in these offices will be feeling nervous: what future for them if they work for an association without any UK members in future? For those involved in the world of EU funding the prospects are even more uncertain. UK participation in EU programmes and funds is not guaranteed. And the role of British regional offices in Brussels, universities, and others who seek to build partnerships around EU funds is clearly under threat.
- The Campaigner
There is a large community of Brits working for campaigning NGOs in Brussels, across all sectors. Almost all of them were strongly in favour of Remain, on the basis of preserving social and environmental rights and values. They are now already campaigning to ensure that the issues close to their hearts are not damaged by Brexit, whether in the UK or the rest of Europe. Many will argue that there is more need than ever for progressive British voices in Brussels. But will those voices still be heard? It is clear that the political landscape has changed, perhaps forever. Responding will certainly require new approaches.
- The next generation
Beyond the fate of the Brits who currently live and work in Brussels, perhaps it is more important to think of those who are to come. Or rather, those who may not be able to come in future. Brussels is a European city of movement – people arrive, work, live, love, and then often leave. Some of us stay, but many simply take advantage of free movement to experience living in another country for a few months or years. That right is now under threat. The ‘Brussels Brits’ who are already here have their own concerns, but the next generation may not have the right to come and live in this confusing, infuriating, complex, delightful, and wonderful city – or in the rest of the European Union. And that’s the real shame.
Simon Wilson is a long-term Brit in Brussels. This article is written in a personal capacity.