January 31. A full month into full Brexit. The UK is now completely out of the EU, out of its political, economic, and commercial structures. In Brussels jargon, it is a “third country”. Freedom of movement between the EU and the UK is now a thing of the past. New border barriers are in place, or soon will be. People, goods, service, and data now need permissions to cross this new border.
The new border barriers have come as a shock to many in the UK who seemed to think that a “free trade agreement” between the EU and the UK would leave things much as they were before. When you have spent much of your adult life living in the open European space that the EU has created through a mesh of agreements between its member states you can easily come to assume that this open space is the natural order of things. Except that it is not.
The 27 member states of the EU live together within a common border. Every other country in the world lives behind their own borders. The UK has now decided to take itself out of the common Europe space and to build a border with the rest of its own continent. That decision inevitably creates problems.
Some of the big problems are already evident. Scottish fishermen who were led to believe that Brexit would be an El Dorado are instead finding that is it one of Dante’s infernal circles of hell. Not only can they not catch the fish they were told they could catch, but the fish they can catch they cannot sell into the European market because of border barriers. They have been given the fish finger.
The same is true for multiple other exporters, as is consistently and brilliantly documented by Peter Forster and his colleagues in the Financial Times.
But leave the big things aside.
A year ago I wrote about the “Brexit of small things”, the disruptions to daily life that Brexit would bring, and which would only become apparent after Brexit had actually happened. I suggested that there would be many “but surely…” moments when UK citizens, hit by the realities of Brexit, would blurt out “but surely Brexit cannot mean that we cannot continue to do things as before?”
Except that it does. Like finding that your credit card charges have gone up. Or that you have to pay extra costs on an item you ordered online from a French boutique. Or that travel insurance to Europe costs more.
If you happen to be British and living in the EU then your life has become a lot more complicated.
The Connexion is an English language, monthly newspaper in France providing “French news in English since 2002”. You can find it here: connexionfrance.com. It is what it is. A newspaper for English ex-pats in France.
Let me digress here for a moment… can someone explain to me why British in other countries always refer to themselves as “ex-pats” and not as what they really are, immigrants? Has it to do with those long gone days of empire when the British went to other countries to rule them, to make a fortune and then return home? Never integrating with the local population, and if and when they did, to be accused of “going native”.
Anyways… back to The Connexion. The February/March issue of this excellent publication arrived the other day. The frontpage story reads:
UK drivers left in limbo over licence swap rules.
Brexit has left an increasing number of British people living in France facing months without being able to drive legally.
It is currently not possible for UK nationals driving on UK licences in France to exchange for a French one, as is required of non-EU nationals, as the rules to do this were not covered in the Brexit deal signed in December.
France has agreed to allow drivers using UK licences to continue to do so until the end of this year but if the UK licence expires – as recent photocard ones do after 10 years and all do when the driver reaches 70 and every three years after, it cannot be renewed to a French address – and currently cannot be swapped for a French licence.
The only legal options are to stop driving or take a French driving test.
Just imagine being a 70-year-old British “ex-pat” required to take a French driving test which involves a written paper as well as an actual driving test with a tester. Probably just as well that they do not ask you questions on Sartre and existentialism as you attempt to negotiate a rond-point with six exits. But then, does the rond-point exist in reality or is it just a bourgeois social construct, designed to keep “les workers” trapped in endless circles of capitalist servitude?
Pages 6 and 7 of The Connexion brings us all the latest on Brexit.
Here we read that “many UK state pensioners in different parts of France have had their French Carte Vitale health cards blocked.” Some report being told it is due to Brexit. France and the UK are still negotiating over the issue.
Then there is the story of a woman who ended up with a £2,000 vet’s bill when her dog fell ill on a trip to the UK. Her insurer said that it had refused to pay as its cover was limited to the EU, but later relented when it was pointed out that the doggie illness had occurred during the transition period in 2020. The woman has now had to take out separate English and French policies, costing her double what she paid previously.
On many a trip to London on the Eurostar I often brought home some excellent UK cheddar cheese and a few beef pies, not to mention what we Irish call “sausages and rashers”.
Now French cuisine is, for me, the best cuisine in the world. On a cold, winter’s day, what better than a steaming pot of cassoulet? Incidentally, the Connexion reports that the cassoulet bean is now protected by an EU IGP, in the same way as is champagne, feta cheese and other European regional products.
But, from time to time, you do like a taste of home and cheddar on a Jacob’s Cream Cracker brings back memories of childhood for me, munched as I listened to the Beatles and the Stones on pirate radio in the early 1960s. As I write this it sad to read of the death of Hilton Valentine, the original lead guitarist with the Animals, creator of that great opening riff to House of the Rising Sun.
The Connexion reports, following requests from readers:
… have asked us to clarify the post full-Brexit rules on what can be brought into France from the UK, particularly with regard to food and drink.
The issue stems from EU rules on importation of food into the EU from third countries (ie. those outside the EU/EEA/Switzerland) which have applied to imports from other countries for some time. They now apply to travellers from the UK due to Brexit.
The rules relate to bringing in meat and dairy products, so as to avoid introducing any animal diseases from abroad. They also relate to plants and plant products.
On meat and dairy products in particular the EU toughened these rules following the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic after it was found that germs causing diseases such as this, or swine fever, can be carried in meat and milk.
The rules on plants were strengthened at the end of 2019 in a bid in particular to avoid plant pests entering the EU.
The rules do not totally ban imports to the EU of such products, however in this case animal products need to be accompanied by veterinary certificates and, since December 2019, plant products must be accompanied by phytosanitary certificates.
The latter are to verify that plant products are free from pests and diseases and in line with EU plant health requirements.
So, if you buy a ham or cheese sandwich at Paddington before you board the Eurostar you had better eat it before you get to France or Belgium. You can bring the sandwich into France if it is in your stomach, but not if it is still in your hand luggage.
Which also goes some way to explaining why all those Marks & Spencer food shops in Paris are full of empty shelves, shelves which were once groaning with English sandwiches and ready-made meals. Ah well, a jambon-beurre is not a bad substitute.
If you live in France you could always send back to friends in the UK some delicious French Comté cheese. But even that will not be as easy as it used to be. The Connexion tells us:
La Poste’s service of sending parcels from your own letter box is not now available for sending to the UK, the company has confirmed. It has also clarified its parcels tariff policy for the UK.
Following our story earlier this week concerning other Brexit-related issues with the parcels post, La Poste gave further clarifications to The Connexion regarding its envoi en boîte aux lettres option. A spokeswoman said: “Parcels going out of the EU are not eligible for the service, so as a result the service is no longer available for the UK.”
British citizens who live full-time in France, whether for work or retirement, will learn to adjust to the new rules and requirements. Those there before December 31, 2020, will benefit from the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement, as will EU citizens in the UK.
For UK citizens now wishing to move to France, things will be very different, as they will be for those wishing to move to an EU country as The Connexion reports here. You will need to apply for a visa, do a lot of paperwork, and show that you have sufficient financial resources.
But probably the cruellest Brexit blow of all hits those who have holiday homes, apartments, mobile homes, or boats in France. Since January 1, they are limited to stay just 90 days in any 180-day period in the EU. Not all who have “places in the sun” are rich, chateau owners.
Most are decent, ordinary hard-working people who, on a holiday in France, Spain or elsewhere, decided that six months in the sun every year when they retired would be better than a cold, wet winter in Sunderland, or wherever. They scrimped and saved and cashed in part of their pension to make it possible.
Gordon Knight is a case in point. Knight, 73, has spent recent, pre-Covid years, cruising the waterways of France and has written guides about doing so, the proceeds of which go to charity. He tells The Connexion:
When the possibility of discussing flexibility on freedom of movement rules came up in the talks, the UK wasn’t interested… People like me are seriously affected.”
It appears from press reports that one of the UK’s reddest of red lines in the EU talks was the absolute ending of freedom of movement. Nothing could cross that red line.
Knight is one of the victims of that Brexit absolutism. There are many hundreds of thousands of others with properties across the EU who are also victims. As are artists and musicians who can no longer freely do gigs in EU member states. Of course, they are not banned from EU countries, but to work there now involves significant bureaucratic and economic costs.
Today, because of Covid 19, no one is travelling. But as soon as it becomes possible to do so, brace for howls of anguish as those heading off to the Costas are refused boarding because they do not have six months left on their passport, or must spend hours queuing in the “non-EU” line at Alicante airport, or get home to find they have run up hundreds of pounds in roaming charges.
The Brexit of small things. And it is the small things that make life miserable.