Britain’s Ambassador to Finland has given some mixed messages about Brexit, with the clock ticking for both sides to come to an agreement – or not – about the future relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union.
Speaking to a few dozen British nationals in Helsinki this week, Tom Dodd said that Brexit was a very emotional and passionate issue for some people.
“The hallmark of Brexit I’m afraid is still continued uncertainty, so I don’t have firm answers for everything” he said at the meeting in a church hall.
Dodd, who took up his post at the embassy earlier this year, said the negotiations for a withdrawal agreement were 85% complete “apart from a few issues around the Irish border”; and that the transition agreement between London and Brussels was “effectively done”.
“There has been progress on all these things in the last six months” said the diplomat.
However later he conceded there was “quite a large gap between the parties” and said “the prospect of no deal has gone up”
Rights of Brits in Finland
The continued rights of British nationals living in Finland after Brexit takes place in spring next year are covered in the negotiations.
“The withdrawal agreement basically includes a guarantee for your rights in Finland. If you’re a UK national living in Finland, essentially your rights under the withdrawal agreement are secure […] that is of course if those things come into force”.
Talks continue right up until an agreement is signed – or no deal is possible. And that means right now there are no firm guarantees for British nationals who live in Finland.
Since Britain rejects freedom of movement for EU nationals, Brits who live here now would be essentially allowed to continue living and working in Finland; but they would be ‘country-locked’ to Finland and not able just get up and move to live, work or study in any other EU country.
Britain has said it wants some of the benefits of being an EU member but not all of them, and won’t agree to sticking to EU rules on many different areas.
“The EU has complained this is cherry picking. They are pulling the currents from the buns as you would say in Finnish. But we reject that” says the Ambassador.
Prospect of another referendum?
There have been widespread calls in the UK for another referendum to either give people one more chance to vote in/out on Brexit; or to agree or not agree with whatever Brexit deal is finally reached between the UK and EU.
Ambassador Dodd said there had “obviously been a lot of speculation about another referendum […] it is feasible, but it’s not the policy of the government” and it can’t happen overnight, he said.
While many Brits in Finland are no able to vote in referendums – British nationals usually lose their voting rights after 15 years living abroad – the Ambassador said there’s a slim chance that might change.
David Cameron’s government had said they would amend voting laws to allow every British passport holder to keep their votes, but the promises came to nothing. A private member’s bill in the House of Commons will not likely come to a vote in the life of this parliament. But the legislation could be tacked on to any bills authorising some sort of second Brexit referendum.
“If there was a referendum bill, that could be amended to change the [voting laws]… but we’re clearly in the realms of speculation” said Dodd.
What happens to Brits in Finland?
One of the most pressing topics for British people living in Finland is what might happen to them after Brexit.
There’s an estimated 5000 British nationals currently in Finland, and many will be permanent residents, if they’ve been here any length of time. But others will have been here for a shorter period, they might be here on a work contract or to study.
“I know you’ll be worried here what your status will be in the event of no deal. And I should say that you’ve seen the British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that in the event of a no deal, the UK govt will essentially secure the rights of EU nationals in the UK” said Dodd, before adding it was not clear how that would happen.
He said that the UK was calling on EU member states to “unilaterally settle unresolved issues face by UK nationals”, including here in Finland.
The Finnish government is set to unveil its own plans about what happens in the event of no Brexit deal later this month – and that might have include a more clear indication of what will happen to British passport holders too.
Some other EU countries like France have recently moved to give clearly defined rights to UK nationals in their countries no matter what happens during the end stage of Brexit negotiations.
“What we think would happen would be that there would be a movement of move Brits, mono Brits, from the EU side of the register to the third country side of the register” he explained.
“But how it would happen, how it would work is not clear” he added.
The embassy has been holding some meetings around the country to try and engage with British citizens living here. The next meeting will be in Turku later this month.