Brexit dominated the meeting with topics including whether UK state pensions will continue to be uprated for Britons in France and whether children of expat families will be able to attend UK universities after Brexit at EU rates and not higher foreign student ones (the ambassador said the latter could not at present be guaranteed).
He told the audience good progress was being made in the negotiations, especially on expat rights but that neither side was pressing for ‘ring-fencing’ of rights from the rest of the talks. “Both take the approach that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.
This first year as ambassador must have been a whirlwind for you?
Every day is a privilege and honour. It’s an important time for relations between our countries. Brexit negotiations are under way and it’s been a busy year in both countries with the general election and the presidential and parliamentary elections in France.
How did the Nice meeting go?
It was a good turnout – around 130. I’ve had others this year in Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Toulouse but this was the first we advertised as an open forum rather than via British associations. We plan to do more. It was a good meeting. I understand the concerns people have and I did my best to answer for the government but it’s also important I hear concerns so I can report them back to London.
What has been the general mood and the key issues?
There’s a huge amount of interest in the negotiations and what progress has been made and a lot of questions about rights of residence and to work and on healthcare and pension rights.
One other point that’s raised regularly is the 15-year rule and the need, the hope that people will be able to vote whether or not they’ve lived abroad for more than 15-years. The government is committed to making that change.
It has been said it will happen before the next general election, but will you express the urgency people feel?
I will certainly convey the strength of feeling in this audience, but this is typical of what I hear among Brits elsewhere in France so I will make sure that is conveyed to London. It is a question of finding an opportunity for it in the parliamentary timetable.
The consular service was slimmed down in recent years in France – what are you doing to make sure you cope at this busy time?
The work our consulates do is some of the most important work that we do. Looking after Brits in this country is our job and we take it very seriously.
It’s true we now have consulates in Marseille, Bordeaux and Paris and we no longer have one in Lyon but, if anything, our service is as good and arguably has improved because our speed of response – for example our ability to respond to passport applications, which are now centralised and done online – has considerably improved. In this year alone our consular team has dealt with 4,000 customers and we’ve issued 1,500 emergency travel documents to Brits who’ve lost their passports or had them stolen.
They do an exceptional job and also have to respond to emergencies, such as when Monarch went into administration and people had to be flown back from all over Europe, including from Nice. We’ve also had to respond to hurricanes in the French Caribbean and send teams to help our citizens.
As an embassy we are also devoting an increasing amount of time to meetings like today’s where I am accompanied by our consul in Marseille and a member of my Paris team.
You also have ‘honorary’ consuls We have one in Nice who is with us today and she does a fantastic job. We tend to have them where there are large numbers of Brits but we do keep that under review and try to have them where we need them.
You have quoted the prime minister about being ‘in touching distance’ of a deal on citizens’ rights after Brexit. Are you optimistic?
That is our hope and what we are pressing for. With respect to this basket of issues on rights we do think we are in touching distance. With respect to the wider negotiation we think it’s important to get on to discussing the future because these issues about our departure are often linked to our future status. That’s for our negotiators between now and December.
There are fears of a ‘no deal’ – are you aware either on the British or French side of any plans that are being made for citizens’ rights in this scenario? You said today for example that pension uprating would still continue?
The uprating of pensions is a British government decision and we fully intend to continue doing so. We are pleased that we have now reached a reciprocal agreement with the European Commission on this issue. This is important for technical reasons – as if the EU decide not to uprate then we could see a scenario whereby a British citizen with multiple pensions in the European Union does not receive uprating on the totality of their pension. And, as I’ve said, we are confident of reaching an overall agreement.
Have you had any feedback from the French government about how they would act if there was no deal?
It’s not for me to speak for the French but in my contacts with them there’s a strong appreciation of the role Brits making their lives in this country play. There are thousands of Britons here and they make an enormous contribution across the country. They’ve received a warm welcome and I think the French government appreciates them and wants them to remain but obviously the negotiations need to conclude.
There have been concerns about flights possibly being disrupted if there is no deal – have you been involved in any discussions?
No, our objective is to get a deal and we are confident we will achieve it and all our effort is going into that. But I’m not personally involved in the negotiation, it’s done between London and Brussels.
Are we seeing more firms coming here from the UK, or vice versa?
The UK remains a major investor in France and likewise, the Department for International Trade recently published inward investment figures into the UK which continue to show a very healthy continued number of investments from French companies, I think 131 so far supporting 8,000 jobs.
We do £69bn of annual trade between Britain and France, a phenomenal figure, and it’s in both countries’ interest that trade continues because hundreds of thousands of British and French people depend on it for their income.
What difference has the election of President Macron this year made?
We work very closely with him. The prime minister came over to Paris and had dinner with him and went to a football game with him at the Stade de France shortly after he became president, in the sad context of the attacks in Manchester and London Bridge.
President Macron wanted to express solidarity with the UK much as Britain did following the Bataclan attack. On that occasion at a Wembley game the crowd sang the Marseillaise. At the Stade de France the crowd sang the British national anthem and the Republican Guard played Don’t Look back in Anger – a sign of the strong bonds of friendship between our countries.
A Franco-British summit is due in 2018 – what will be on the agenda?
The last was in the President’s home town of Amiens in March 2016, the next is due in the new year on the full range of issues that bind our countries including defence and security. The date and place are yet to be announced.
What other important milestones will there be next year?
November sees the centenary of the end of the First World War, an important moment for both countries, when we remember sacrifices we’ve made for the freedoms we enjoy today and a reminder that when the chips are down Britain and France have been on the same side on so many occasions. It’s also a reminder that we remain committed to working together to protect each other and look after our citizens.
Connexion also asked the embassy by email: Do you have concerns that there may be issues if British expats are asked to apply for cards or to otherwise demonstrate their legal residence with paperwork?
It is possible EU27 states may bring in new administrative procedures for UK nationals living in the EU. This is under discussion. If so, we would expect Britons to be involved in determining what these processes might be and to be subsequently made fully aware of the processes and requirements. We have been keen to consult with EU27 citizens in the UK in designing administrative procedures that will need to be brought in for them. The UK is committed to reducing the administrative requirements on the applicants; for example we don’t intend to require students and self-sufficient people living in the UK to prove that they have held comprehensive sickness insurance when they apply for settled status. They can still be granted settled status if they have never had this.
- More meetings are due in Paris and Poitou-Charentes (to sign up click here) and others are planned in 2018. Keep informed via the Voisins’ Voices newsletter (use the search box at gov.uk) the British Embassy Paris Facebook page @UKinFrance on Twitter and the dedicated Brexit section of Connexion’s website.
The embassy also wants to hear from people who have had problems obtaining cartes de séjour, and may be contacted via email@example.com It would like to build up a picture of where problems have arisen so as, potentially, to contact these prefectures. Cards are not obligatory but experts have told Connexion they may be useful in proving rights after Brexit, especially the séjour permanent ones, available after five years’ residence.