German Foreign Minister looks to tackle Brexit ‘Achilles heel’ on London visit

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Thursday the UK and the European Union needed to find a "responsible and pragmatic solution" to frictions over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

German Foreign Minister arriving in Dublin for a visit in December.
German Foreign Minister arriving in Dublin for a visit in December. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

“The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is the Achilles heel in relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” Baerbock said in a statement ahead of her first official visit to London on Thursday.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an adjunct to the EU-UK Brexit divorce deal. It seeks to respect the 1998 peace accord for Northern Ireland by ensuring there is an open land border between the UK territory and the Republic of Ireland.

As such, Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s single market, in order to avoid checks on goods travelling from and to EU member Ireland.

But checks have to happen somewhere – so the UK has agreed to a de facto trade border down the Irish Sea to prevent goods coming from England, Scotland and Wales from entering the EU free market uncontrolled via Northern Ireland.

That has infuriated pro-UK unionists in Northern Ireland, who say the arrangement drive a wedge between their community and the three other UK nations.

Siding with them, London has unveiled legislation to drastically overhaul the protocol unilaterally.

The EU continues to insist that the protocol be implemented in full, to prevent shoddy, unsafe or untaxed goods entering its single market via Northern Ireland.

“It is crucial that we find a responsible and pragmatic solution on the basis of the current agreement,” Baerbock said.

“We cannot turn back time but we can choose a good future together.”

The German minister said Thursday’s talks with her British counterpart, James Cleverly, would also cover the provision of further support for Ukraine, including weapons.

“The sooner (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands that his brutal war of aggression is bound to fail, the sooner there is hope that the war will end,” she said.

Germany has come under pressure at home and abroad to do more to support the Ukrainian war effort.

Notably Berlin has so far refused to supply Ukraine with Leopard tanks, a key request from officials in Kyiv.

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.