REPRESENTATIVES of churches in the diocese in Europe have expressed “deep fear and concern” to the British Government about the future of the UK outside the European Union.
Eighteen clergy and lay people from the diocese in Europe, including the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, gathered at the British Embassy in Brussels on Wednesday last week. They had a two-hour discussion, via video link, with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the EU, Lord Bridges of Headley, who was in London. The British Ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose, joined the clergy for the discussion.
The meeting took place as the Prime Minister laid out how the Government plans to disentangle the UK from the EU in the coming months (News, 20 January).
Mrs May said that she hoped to strike a deal with the EU that would include exiting the single market after leaving but agreeing a free-trade deal; controlling immigration from the EU into Britain; continuing intelligence and security co-operation; and maintaining the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. She also warned that, if a good deal for the UK was not offered, she would take Britain out of the EU without any deal.
A spokesman for the diocese in Europe said that the concerns raised at the meeting covered a “wide range” of topics. These included reciprocal health-care, pension arrangements, dual nationality, and clergy employment rights in Europe.
Dr Innes said that the future of funding chaplaincies could be affected by older members’ returning to the UK. Recruiting clerics to take on chaplaincy duties could also suffer, since restrictions on people coming from outside Britain to work in European churches had caused delays and difficulties in the past.
The chaplain of St Peter and St Paul, Torrevieja, on the South Costa Blanca, in Spain, the Revd Richard Seabrook, said: “Up until now, older church members in Spain and France have received excellent medical treatment under the Spanish health-care system; but they are having to make decisions now based on other decisions which will be made in the future.
“They already face uncertainty, because the value of their pensions is reduced by 20 per cent because of the fall in the pound’s value since the Brexit vote; their homes are worth less because of the property market; and they are worried that if they sell and return to Britain they may not be able to afford a home there.”
The Chaplain of St Clement’s Anglican Episcopal Church, Prague, the Revd Ricky Yates, said that he planned to retire later this year, but did not want his future status in the EU to be used as a “bargaining chip” for negotiations.
Lord Bridges responded that the Prime Minister would like to settle the issue of reciprocal rights for UK nationals now, or as soon as possible after Article 50 is triggered, in March. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the UK Parliament must vote on Article 50 before it can be implemented, but that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies did not need to vote. A Bill would be published within days, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, said.
A Reader at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar, Audrey Singh, and a member of the congregation, John McKillop Smith, warned that about 10,000 people regularly cross to Gibraltar from Spain for work. Since not all were Spanish, threats to isolate the residents and fears of a “Berlin-style wall” could materialise.
Lord Bridges said that the Government was aware of these difficulties, and was working for an urgent solution; but he warned that its first point of call was to negotiate a deal for the 60 million inhabitants of the UK, not for the 25,000 people in Gibraltar.
“It was very clear that the biggest worries are over health-care and pensions,” Dr Innes said. “Of course, as a bishop, I have concerns that the most vulnerable people should not be placed in situations of real stress, uncertainty, and possible poverty.
“I will want to keep up my own contacts with the Government as the actual negotiations get under way to help ensure that the needs of people in our diocese, who, sadly, risk being treated as negotiating chips in a bigger game, are properly understood and respected.”
A spokesman for the diocese said: “Participants said that their concerns had been heard, but were saddened to have to return to their congregations with very few definitive answers. A further consultation may be planned as Brexit talks continue. In the meantime, church members were encouraged to consider organising national meetings with British ambassadors in their individual countries.”
Dr Innes said: “I was very pleased that the Government, in the form of Lord Bridges, was prepared to put a whole day in his diary to meet with us. We were taken very seriously by the staff at the UK Representation in Brussels, and it is the staff in this building who will be conducting the actual negotiations.”