‘Britons in France are the victims of Brexit’

In an exclusive interview, former UK ambassador Lord Ricketts tells Connexion how Britons living in France are victims of Brexit, saying he strongly believes that leaving the EU is wrong.

24 October 2018
No-deal would be ‘terrible’ – former ambassador says
By Oliver Rowland

Connexion spoke to Sir Peter Ricketts several times during his stint as ambassador to France (2012-2016). Now Lord Ricketts, he retains a keen interest in France and in Brexit, which seemed far off and unlikely when we met in 2013 and he said “if [we] ever did leave, there would be huge consequences in all sorts of areas, including for Britons abroad”.

On leaving in 2016 he was optimistic that Prime Minister David Cameron could negotiate reforms to keep the UK in the EU, saying: “I don’t like the term Brexit because the idea is ‘non-Brexit’. We are working very hard with the French, who would much prefer we stay.”

He spoke to Oliver Rowland on October 18, the day after an EU summit dinner which was previously meant to have been the deadline for a UK/EU exit agreement to be ready - but which left matters at an impasse with just a few weeks of negotiations left to fend off an exit with no deal.

Lord Ricketts, speaking about the impasse in Brexit talks as a no-deal scenario seemed more possible than ever, said he was disappointed.

“Overall the government were badly prepared and failed to get their act together. We’ve barely had a negotiation yet and have had no kind of plan to deal with Northern Ireland and no clear agreement about what the future relations would be due to divisions in the cabinet.

“But I am not despairing and think we are more likely than not to reach a deal to get us into a transitional period so as to sort out the details during that, though I have every sympathy for Britons in France who are worried about the uncertainties.

“A no-deal crash-out would be so bad for the UK, British citizens in Europe and all the EU countries that in the end I feel some settlement would be found but it may leave a lot of details very vague for the future.”

'You must all clamour to the UK to protect pensions and healthcare'

Lord Ricketts said suggestions raised recently that the transition period could be extended beyond 2020 were useful. A great deal remained to be agreed, including the future trading relationship and police and anti-terror cooperation, he said. “It’s controversial in British politics but if it’s two or two and a half years to sort out all the details, that’s better.

“It will make a smooth transition more likely and avoid huge difficulties and disruption to daily lives and supply chains and transport links.”

He added that if the deal goes ahead he believes rights of Britons should be preserved, apart from those needing free movement to other EU states. However, problems would arise for those wanting to move in the future.

“If we [the UK] decide not to give any privileges to EU citizens, EU countries won’t give any to British people. There we are in the unknown.”

If there is no deal, Britons would be left dependent on the decisions of the countries where they live – France has said this may depend on how the UK acts towards the French.

“That’s one of a million reasons why a no-deal would be a terrible outcome, because it would throw out the agreement reached to protect the rights of those already there. But my feeling is even if it happened the two sides would still say ‘we need French citizens here’ and ‘the British make a big contribution in France and we’re not going to tear up their rights and expel them all or make life difficult for them’.

“I can’t promise it and there are unknowns but I think the rights of those who are settled and integrated – will be protected in all scenarios. It’s other categories – like new arrivals – where the problems would be.”

Asked to comment about the administrative difficulties Britons face in proving legal residency status, he said: “The French just haven’t had the structures. Up to now no one has been going for a carte de séjour because it wasn’t necessary, and suddenly tens of thousands are applying. It’s the same in the UK with the Home Office snowed under with applications for ‘settled status.’ The systems are overwhelmed by people trying to shore up their status – which is understandable.

“This is just part of the unplanned damage that Brexit is doing. I deeply feel Brexit was the wrong thing to do and British citizens in France are one of the victims.

“The French are not trying to be difficult and I sympathise with people in that plight and while I think in practice those already in France will be looked after, I understand why they want the best documents and proof of their residence and status.

“This is one of the many uncertainties Brexit has thrown up and one reason it is better to have a deal.

“I hope in the next few weeks somehow a way can be found to square the circle on things like Nor­thern Ireland so we can come out with a deal and a longish transition period.”

Asked why the UK has not released a ‘no-deal’ planning paper on expatriates’ rights, such as pension uprating, UK payments for pensioners’ healthcare (S1s) and the right to export disability benefits, he said: “I don’t know, but it could be they are just snowed under by all the technicalities a no-deal would throw up.

“There are so many issues to be thought about and British people abroad are, I’m sure, on the list somewhere but clearly not at the top.

“I think British people should be raising it with every channel they can to make sure the government are focusing on it.

“Whenever I get the chance in the House of Lords, I will speak up for the rights of the British in Europe and remind the government but I’m only one small voice. Everyone’s got to keep clamouring for their cases to be thought about to make sure the government keeps them on their radar screen.”

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