Imagine the scene — a modern conference room in the sprawling office complex of Berlaymont, a building which Brexiters love to imagine as the pulsating heart of the Evil Empire. A delegation of well-intentioned British parliamentarians is meeting the urbane and competent EU lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to discuss citizens’ rights for Europeans in the UK and Britons in the UK.
The early exchanges are affable but predictable. Michel Barnier states the EU Commission’s position: that the Withdrawal Agreement is the best way of protecting the rights of the Five Million and that there can be no ‘mini deals’. The UK delegation leader, MP Alberto Costa, stresses the need for the ring-fencing of Citizens’ Rights, a measure that gained unanimous support at Westminster. Other parliamentarians chip in with alternative ways forward such as an ‘international interpretative instrument’ as a guarantor for citizens’ rights
After the officials and politicians have spoken, it is the turn of the citizens. The atmosphere suddenly becomes charged as Fiona Godfrey makes an impassioned and personal plea to Michel Barnier and roundly scolds the UK delegation — in an impressive combination of Yorkshire grit, the adept button-pressing of an EU insider and the focussed passion of a lifelong campaigner.
Fiona reminds the EU lead negotiator that even at our first meeting with him in early 2017, BiE and the3million raised ring fencing because both our organisations felt that things were not going to go smoothly. She congratulates Barnier for negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, admitting that it now looks like the best we are likely to get and that it was not his or the EU27’s fault the UK has not ratified it. She turns to the UK delegation and says that the blame for that lies entirely in London and that our entire political class has let down the Five Million. They look contrite.
The BiE co-chair takes a deep breath and points out to Michel Barnier that ring-fencing is a legacy issue for him. She thanks him for his work as a Commissioner in building the single market, but stresses that it is the citizens like us who have actually exercised the four freedoms which he cares so much about. The ultimate point of the single market is improving the lives of citizens, and British citizens in the EU are models of this; thus the rights of this finite group should be protected and recognized. Our contributions to the EU project, our lives, must count for something if the EU, as he has said, is much more than a free trade area. Fiona concludes that, if the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be salvaged, Michel Barnier should ring-fence our rights under Article 50. This would be his legacy, would keep his promise to protect our rights and would safeguard his political work as a committed European.
Dimitri Scarlato rounds off by pointing out to those present that all the Five Million have been held hostage by both sides with their lives are on hold and that they need ring fencing to end this limbo. He conjures up an apt and graphic metaphor to illustrate the plight of UKinEU citizens: the no-deal contingency measures for us are like being on a sinking ship, but not using the lifeboats and waiting instead for twenty-seven different rescue boats with twenty-seven different rescue plans to arrive.
The words of Fiona and Dimitri are received politely and after the meeting they are congratulated on their speeches. It is difficult to know what their impact will be. But on the back of two and a half years of painstaking groundwork (the establishing of good personal contacts, meticulous documentation and tireless advocacy), Fiona’s personal appeal to Michel Barnier had to be made.
Words: Michael Harris