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Community life: Beyond Brexit, the Brussels British Community Association continues to support citizens’ rights
Describe your roles at the BBCA?
GV I’m chief cook and bottle washer, otherwise sometimes known as the chairman. I first joined the committee about 10 years ago and I’ve never managed to escape.
TR I’ve vice chair and I also joined about 10 years ago and failed to escape. I write for the website and the Facebook page and I’m also secretary of the Belgian section of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
How long has the BBCA been around?
GV: There’s been a British community organisation since the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, initially set up to look after wounded soldiers. That original charitable organisation still exists in the form of the Brussels Charitable Foundation (BCF). The BBCA was formally created in 1944 after the liberation of Belgium. In the 1950 to 70s it was very significant with 2,500 members. The British community began to grow rapidly after Britain’s accession to the EU in the early 70s and the role of the BBCA changed. It had been the social centre of the community, but with the arrival of lots of other essentially English-speaking groups, there’s been less need for a social organisation.
Is there still a strong charity angle?
TR Yes, we donate to four principle charities: the BCF, which does unique work looking about British people in difficulty; the Brussels Branch of the Royal British Legion; the CHS Community Help Service helpline; and the Wednesday Club that organises social get-togethers for elderly English-speaking residents in Belgium.
How has the BBCA responded to Brexit?
GV Tim and I have particularly been focused on providing information for British citizens since the referendum. People came to Belgium exercising their rights as British and European citizens. They built careers, families - lots of people married people of other nationalities - and their futures were based on those expected benefits of being European citizens. That’s changed and it’s caused huge uncertainty even though the eventual withdrawal agreement, and in particular the attitude of Belgium, has made things better than they might have been. I’m very grateful to Belgian people for their continuing welcome. But some rights will be lost, so helping people to understand their rights and then defend their future rights is continuing to be a very important role for us.
What is the BBCA’s relationship with the British Embassy?
TR We have a very good link with the embassy, including meetings with the Ambassador (nominal president of the BBCA) and embassy staff about the status of negotiations and the outcome for citizens’ rights. We’ve continued that information flow during the Covid regime via our website and Facebook group. The BBCA is an established organisation in Belgium with a legal standing. We’ve been here since before the EU and we’re going to be here beyond Brexit, so we’re here for the duration.
Do you know how many Britons live in Belgium?
TR A few thousand have recently taken Belgian citizenship so they ae no longer registered as British.
GV I think it’s around 30-35,000. As Tim says, some people have exercised their right and become Belgian so it may become more difficult to estimate. Although there is a significant community in and around Brussels and Antwerp, they are spread all over Belgium. Most of us are aware anecdotally that lots of Britons arrived last year almost specifically to establish their rights to continue to live in the EU.
How are British citizens coping with the need to exchange their residency cards for M cards?
TR I think light is starting to appear at the end of the tunnel. People who went to the commune in January to see about the M card were often greeted with blank stares. It looks as though the process is starting in some communes and the cards may be available in April. It was reported the other week in Schaerbeek that the process was very smooth and someone got their annex 58 (relating to health insurance) and would be updated by email. This may not hold for all communes. People should know that their electronic residency card is not an ID card so when you go to the commune you need to take a valid passport that has more than six months before the expiry date. One important issue about the M card if you are thinking of getting Belgian citizenship in the future, is that there is no formal route yet in Belgian legislation for moving from the M card to Belgian citizenship. Hopefully this will change. An M card retains your rights within Belgium but there is no freedom of movement within the EU.
Do you advise Britons to contact their commune?
TR I think there’s no harm in contacting your commune, although there is a huge waiting list in the centre of Brussels, not helped by Covid regulations. In theory, we have until the end of the year to apply but you would be advised to start the process before 1 October. And hold onto your current residency card - don’t hand it over to the commune - you need it if you are stopped by the police. I’d say, keep calm and carry on!
Is there a risk that Belgium’s attitude to the UK and Britons has changed following Brexit?
GV The short term view is that many people are rather fed up with the process, and that goes for Brits as well as Belgians. Longer term, there are plenty of things that bind us as well as our shared history. For many Belgians Britain is an important country they feel an affinity for.
How does the BBCA draw its community together?
GV For the moment everything is limited because of Covid, but in the coming few years a key part will be bringing the community together by whatever means we can. In the medium term, this will include some important events such as the summer garden party that we started a few years ago. It is hosted generously by the Royal Brussels Cricket Club in Lasne (pictured, above). I think it is about making sure that all British community organisations maximise their collaboration and impact. We all need to work together to address the needs of the community and support each other now more than ever.
TR Our events are open to everyone, including a quiz night on 24 March (details on our website, Facebook page and Twitter).
Do you have a final message from the BBCA?
GV I think that most Britons would be happy to sincerely thank the people of Belgium and the regional and federal governments who have really acted to help them remain an important part of the community here. We also need to support each other, now more than ever, as Covid has made clear. Not just our own community, but the wider international community and the Belgian community that is such a great host. Finally, we’re not going anywhere. We’ve been here a long time and most of us are really committed to remaining here.
Photos: British Ambassador Martin Shearman presenting charity cheques at BBCA Christmas party 2019 (main image); British Ambassador Martin Shearman at BBCA Practical Brexit info session; BBCA Christmas party charity raffle 2019; BBCA Summer garden party at Royal Brussels Cricket Club 2018