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Brexit: UK minister Wendy Morton discusses citizens’ rights, cross-border trade and Euro 2020 during her ‘virtual’ visit to Belgium
Which topics did your virtual visit cover?
I’ve had excellent exchanges with Belgian and Flemish governments. We have so many shared interests, whether on climate change, trade or cultural links. But I was really keen to hear more about UK nationals living in Belgium so I participated in an outreach event; it was really interesting and helpful to hear first-hand from those who are affected directly.
UK nationals in Belgium have until the end of this year to exchange their current residency cards for the new electronic M card. Do you know how the process is progressing?
I know that there were a few issues with the manufacturing of the M card, but my understanding is that the system is in full swing since April. The other thing that struck me is that we have an incredibly collaborative relationship with the immigration office; they have been very receptive sharing issues that have been flagged to us. We know that nearly 1,600 citizens have received the M card, but this does not actually reflect the number of UK nationals who have submitted their application at their local municipality, which we know is significantly higher. We are asking the Belgian authorities to provide more detailed statistics so that we can get a global picture of how the system is working. We’re not aware of any rejections.
With deadlines looming in neighbouring countries for UK residents to regularise their residency, what further awareness-raising campaigns are being planned in Europe by the UK government?
We have been running an extensive communications campaign using social media, articles in popular English-speaking media in Belgium and radio adverts. Our embassy team are doing a great job in terms of diversifying our messaging. They launched a monthly newsletter in January and are printing booklets with key actions, which are being distributed to organisation to engage with some of those harder to reach audiences that may not be online. We’re asking EU governments to show as much flexibility as possible for late applicants but also to publish a clear list of acceptable grounds for late applications. Clarity of communication is important here.
What about plans to reach long-term residents who risk falling through the net?
One issue that was flagged to us by many UK nationals was the link between the new M card and nationality. Our ambassador [Martin Shearman] wrote to the justice minister as did the Brexit and Belgian Brits (BABBS) group. We were pleased to hear that the Belgian council of ministers recently approved a proposed draft royal decree amendment to include the M card as proof of lawful residence for the purpose of applying Belgian nationality. Passport stamping has been another issue that has been a key focus of ours, but only a few cases were flagged to us in Belgium. I think it’s fair to say that the issue is more prevalent in other countries. But it’s important to highlight that if you’re a resident in Belgium and your passport was stamped, this has no impact on your rights in Belgium. I think that when you travel in the future, showing proof of your residency with a residents card to a border guard will be sufficient evidence.
Following trade disruption at the beginning of the year, are there any ongoing difficulties for cross-border imports/exports? Local British grocery store Stonemanor says it’s suffering delays to goods as well as additional paperwork, checks and costs.
When it comes to trade, I think many envisaged a lot of chaos at the start of the year that I’m pleased to say did not materialise. We worked really closely with Belgian officials, but also with industry federations and businesses to ensure that they were prepared or as prepared as possible for the new procedures. To your specific case about the local grocer, the key thing here is that we want to make sure that people in Belgium can still enjoy their favourite British products in Belgium. Since the beginning of January, the UK has been outside of the EU’s custom union and the EU single market and whenever you have a major change there will be inevitably a few bumps along the way and challenges to overcome. From the UK government perspective, we really have laid the ground work to contain the disruption.
What are the main opportunities now for trade between UK and Belgium?
I’ve had a range of meetings over the last couple of days and I have seen the depth of the cooperation and the opportunities that are there for UK and Belgium to strengthen and develop our bilateral relationship, be that on a B2B level or a people to people level.
It was recently announced that the right to vote in UK elections will be restored to expats who have lived overseas for more than 15 years. Do you have any information on the timeline?
The Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 set out the government’s intention for the next session of parliament. It included a commitment to introduce legislation to deliver these changes via an upcoming elections bill. The 15 year limit on voting right for expats is somewhat arbitrary and anachronistic in what we see as an increasingly global and connected world. Many overseas British citizens still retain really strong links to the UK. We intend to deliver votes for life and extend the franchise for UK parliamentary general elections to all British citizens living overseas who have previously registered or been resident in the UK. In addition, we will facilitate participation by making it easier for British electors to remain on the register with an absent vote arrangement in place.
Do you have a message to UK nationals who have lived with a lot of uncertainty over the past few years?
I would underline the importance of applying for your new M card by 31December 2021. There’s a wealth of information via twitter and the embassy’s monthly newsletter. If it is something that you are intending to do, I would say please get on and do it. If you have friends and family members who are in the same situation as you, make sure that they are aware of what to do. But I want to end with a non-citizens’ rights point. It’s the EUFA Euro 2020 tournament and it would be wrong of me to not wish the Belgian national team every success. Of course, I will be supporting my home nation but there’s nothing like a game of football to bring us all together.