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Brexit uncertainty among French diaspora in London’s ‘Frog Valley’

Anti-Brexit protestors outside Westminster Palace, London.
Anti-Brexit protestors outside Westminster Palace, London. © Rémi Carlier

French nationals living in the UK greeted Britain’s January 31 exit from the EU with Gallic resignation and trepidation over the administrative procedures to come.

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Stepping out of the South Kensington tube station, down the road from the Royal Albert Hall in the heart of the British capital, can sometimes be a surreal experience. As elegant mamans hustle their children to the prestigious Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, the French language can be heard almost as much as English. Chic French cafés, bakeries, patisseries and cheese shops lend a distinctive Gallic quality to a district that has been dubbed "Frog Valley" by Londoners.

For residents of this French microcosm in London, and French nationals in the rest of the UK, there are uncertainties around Britain’s January 31 exit from the European Union.

On Harrington Road, not far from the Institut Français, the well-stocked Librairie La Page French bookshop offers everything from the lofty works of novelist-politician Erik Orsenna to the latest Vanessa Springora shock-book. Behind the counter, Éléonore and Emma shrug their shoulders when asked about the January 31 deadline. "Le Brexit, we've been talking about it for so long, we're a bit jaded now. In the end, now that we're sure it's going to happen, we're more relaxed. No more endless back and forth. And if we have to leave, we'll find work somewhere else."

Britain’s legal exit from the EU more than three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum appears not to have had an immediate impact on EU nationals living here. The Brexit withdrawal agreement ratified by the UK and the European Parliament in Brussels this month includes an 11-month transition period that ends December 31, 2020. During this phase – the so-called implementation period – Britain remains in the EU customs union and single market to ensure frictionless trade until a long-term relationship is agreed. Until the end of 2020, the British will continue to apply and benefit from European rules, including the freedom of movement, without membership in the EU’s political institutions.

Sick of Brexit conversations

Nearly 150,000 French citizens are registered on the consular registers in Britain, mostly in the southeastern region, which includes London. The total estimated number of French nationals in the southeast is around 300,000, most of whom appear not to be unduly worried.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the French Embassy in the UK has not noted any noticeable change in the arrivals and departures of French people in Britain, which has long welcomed executives, self-employed entrepreneurs, as well as young people seeking odd jobs and an opportunity to polish their English.

"There was a great deal of consternation in the community after 2016. There was a lot of grief, a feeling that they were no longer welcome. Brexit had a very strong emotional impact for those who have been here for a long time. The shock effect has eased somewhat since then and the British authorities – especially London’s mayor [Sadiq Khan] – have been very insistent that the Europeans living here at the time of Brexit were at home here," a French diplomatic source told FRANCE 24.

"We had more registrations in 2019 than in 2018," said Fabien Maero, head of London's Centre Charles Péguy, which helps French new arrivals settle in the city and find jobs. “At most, we had a few calls from people who were planning to come to the UK in February [2020] and didn't know whether to apply for a visa. But most of them know that for a year, they can still enjoy London as before.”

Maero has lived in the British capital since 2010 and says he’s tired of the conversations about Brexit. He’s careful to note however that as a foreigner he has not felt stigmatised over the divisive issue since 2016. "What pissed me off most was the referendum campaign and all the lies that accompanied it," he said.

‘Settling’ the issue of EU nationals in Britain

Whether it’s the wealthy classes of South Kensington or elsewhere in this capital of exorbitant rents, the main concern stirring conversations of the French diaspora in London is their status after Brexit.

In March 2019, the British government launched the settled status scheme for EU nationals who have resided in the UK for at least five years to continue living here legally after Brexit. The new status, which requires a rapid online registration, should allow them to continue working, studying and accessing the country's social benefits and services under the same conditions as before.

Securing the rights of an estimated three million EU nationals living in the UK was a top priority for Brussels during the withdrawal negotiations. “We were uncompromising in the negotiations in Brussels to guarantee the rights of European citizens. This was discussed already in the first phase of the negotiations, in the withdrawal agreement. There will be no going back on this," said the diplomatic source.

In theory, there’s nothing to worry about. In reality, there’s probably plenty.

‘Anxious, angry, unwanted’

Nicolas Hatton, co-chair of 3million, a campaign group for EU citizens created after the 2016 referendum, is familiar with these anxieties. During an interview at the European Commission London Office, where the Union Jack and EU flag fly side-by-side a stone's throw from the British parliament, Hatton, a Frenchman who’s lived in the UK since 1995, details a number of them.

"It’s true that after 31st January nothing will change for those who already live here. The problem is the uncertainty about what will come after that," Hatton explained.

The 3million group, along with a professor at Northumbria University, conducted a survey of European citizens’ views on the settled status scheme, in which 400 French people participated. "Many tell us they find it insulting, even humiliating, to have to apply online, especially those who have lived here for a long time, because it's tantamount to asking a favour. We've been asking for a classic administrative registration since 2017," said Hatton.

In the poll, the respondents described their feelings as "anxious", "angry", and "unwanted”. This partly explains, according to Hatton, why only 100,000 French people have so far applied for the settled status, which can be granted until June 30, 2021. "After this grace period, those who have not applied will be illegal immigrants," he explained.

He is especially worried about the elderly, people who are not connected to the Internet or have lived here for so long that they feel more British than French, or disadvantaged people like the homeless or Roma.

No physical document to prove residency

Another major concern is the lack of a physical ID in the UK, where everything is digitised. Many French nationals who, until now, had no problem finding housing or work in the UK, fear that having to prove a digital settled status could lead to discrimination.

The 3million survey found 90 percent of respondents were unhappy about the lack of a physical document to demonstrate their proof of residency. "The truth is that after all the lies of the Brexit campaigns and the latest legislative elections, Europeans have lost all confidence in the [British] government and the home [interior] ministry,” said Hatton.

In her cosy Victorian house, which she shares with three room-mates in Mile End, East London, Laura, a Frenchwoman who has been living in England for five years, lost her patience with the email she received after applying for settled status. "It is clearly stated on this document that it is not a physical proof of my status, which will only be verifiable online. So, I have to trust them to keep my data. But how do you expect us to trust the government, especially after episodes like the Windrush scandal?" she raged.

The Windrush scandal shook Britain in 2018, when around 50,000 Commonwealth workers who had arrived in England from 1948 to 1973 found themselves threatened with deportation due to a lack of documentation proving their right to reside in the country. The trauma it unleashed for what came to be called “the Windrush generation” – including legal residents being treated as illegals at British airports and denied re-entry, people losing jobs and homes – forced the resignation of then British home secretary Amber Rudd. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, who was home secretary when the crackdown on the Windrush generation began, also came in for harsh criticism. "We want to make sure that the same thing will not happen to European citizens," said Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament Brexit Coordinator.

The British government’s track record on digital data does not spark confidence either. In 2014, the ministry of justice was fined £180,000 for losing sensitive data on prisoners. In 2008, the ministry of defence was forced to admit that it had lost 100 USB memory sticks and 650 laptops, which had been stolen.

If Britain’s ministries do not always inspire confidence among the French diaspora, political leaders fare even worse – and that’s cause for concern. "With someone like Boris Johnson in power,” noted Laura, “anything is possible".

This article was adapted from the original in French.

 

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