On Monday 1st October, the British Embassy in Helsinki addressed a gathering of concerned British nationals on the current state of Brexit negotiations, in the form of a “town hall meeting” intended to assuage growing concerns. The result was a tense 2-hour session involving insults, straw polls and heated debates that bitterly exposed the current state of anxiety among Brits in Europe.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon, expats from across Finland gathered in the crypt of the imposing Mikael Agricola Church in Punavuori, all in search of clarity. Given the troubled state of negotiations between the UK and the EU, which have been deadlocked for months, it was hoped that the ambassador may be able to shed some light on the situation.
As Earl Grey tea and chocolate digestives were served to the crowd of students, businesspeople and retirees who have made Finland their home, the sense of unease was palpable. One young gentleman in a suit joked that the decision to host this event in a crypt was surely some kind of metaphor for the state of UK-EU relations.
Most were loudly speculating over what would happen to the five thousand UK citizens in Finland should a deal with the EU not be reached by March 2019. There is currently no agreement in place regarding citizen’s rights, meaning a “hard Brexit” in five months could result in thousands of people losing their EU residency rights overnight.
A hush descended upon the room as the British ambassador to Finland, Mr. Tom Dodd, took center stage. He was also accompanied by a representative from the Migri, who was there to give “technical advice” for those concerned about their residency status.
“The hallmark of Brexit is continued uncertainty, so I’m afraid my assurance is limited”, Mr. Dodd told the crowd. An audible sigh of disappointment rose from the back of the room.
The ambassador then launched into a 20-minute update on the state of negotiations, promising that the UK was “working hard” to get a deal that would work to everyone’s benefit. He warned those listening not pay heed to the “sensational press” and said that good progress was, in fact, being made. The official stance of the UK government, that a “very good deal” had been offered to the EU, and all the EU need do is accept it, was repeated several times.
Reassurances were made that, as long as a deal is reached by March, everyone’s rights are secure, and they can continue enjoying EU residency as before. This, of course, led to the second half of the event: what to do if there is no deal.
“Unfortunately, the prospect of No Deal has gone up”, Mr. Dodd told the audience. “In terms of rights of citizens [in event of No Deal]… we are at a standstill”.
A “no deal” Brexit represents the worst nightmares of many Brits in Europe, as this could result in them becoming third country nationals overnight, meaning a visa and work permit would be required to continue living in Europe. Qualifications, licenses and study rights would also become invalid in the EU if special arrangements in these areas are not made.
Mr. Dodd declared that “the British and Finnish government are in conversation” regarding preparations for No Deal, which would also affect the 20,000 Finnish people currently living in the UK.
Quite what these conversations have entailed was left unsaid, but the ambassador’s next words gave us something of a clue. He instructed the now-silent audience that it is “imperative” that they begin gathering as much paperwork as possible that documents their life in Finland. “Just get yourself in the system as much as you possibly can”.
Then came the questions from the audience. The first one, naturally, asked how exactly the UK government is working to prevent a No Deal Brexit from occurring. To this, Mr. Dodd replied that negotiations were intensifying, and that “nobody is interested in stopping planes flying from Helsinki to London”.
The next question came from a middle-aged man in the center of the room; after briefly denouncing “the UK gutter press” for getting us in “this awful, awful situation”, he put a question to the audience. “Who here believes that we are entitled to a second referendum on Brexit, given the lies we were sold in original?”.
A show of hands revealed that a large majority of the room was in favor. To this, a gentleman sat nearby responded angrily. “We don’t need any lectures from you. The British people already had their say, and it’s the job of the British government to get on with it and implement the result”. The Remain versus Leave argument playing out in microcosm.
As arguments began flying across the room and tensions began to mount, diplomatic staff asked for quiet. Stone-faced. Mr. Dodd responded; “it is not the policy of the British government to pursue a second referendum”.
More questions were shouted from the audience. “Will my driving license still work here next year?”. “Will I still be able to receive benefits?”. “Will I have to start paying university fees?”.
At one point an elderly woman stood up to address the audience. She had lived in Finland for 66 years, had never had to fill out a residency application, and was concerned that she would not be physically strong enough to complete the 5-hour Finnish language exam required to obtain citizenship. Would special arrangements be made for people like her?
Like the other questions, the ambassador did not have a straightforward answer. It seems that despite there being only a few months left until Britain’s departure from the EU, everything is still up for negotiation. As EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier famously said; “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
It seems the British in Finland may have to wait a little longer for the clarity they seek.
Adam Oliver Smith
Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP - LEHTIKUVA / AFP