Brexit: be prepared - Edward Zammit Lewis

Brexit: be prepared - Edward Zammit Lewis

A pro-Brexit protestor - for the UK ‘crashing out’ of the European Union without a deal - holding a banner stating ‘Leave Then Negotiate’ in London. Photo: Amani A/

A pro-Brexit protestor - for the UK ‘crashing out’ of the European Union without a deal - holding a banner stating ‘Leave Then Negotiate’ in London. Photo: Amani A/

The situation surrounding the acceptance by the UK of the deal agreed with the EU last November remains chaotic. The positions of the two sides, particularly with regard to the Irish border, at present look unbridgeable, and the continuing stand-off between Brussels and Westminster may lead to the UK’s leaving the EU without a deal come March 29.

The increasing risk of a disorderly withdrawal prompted the EU to work on a Contingency Action Plan in order to mitigate the effects of a “no deal” Brexit and protect its citizens and businesses from the resulting drastic disruptions.

In a “no deal” case there will be no transition period, and EU law will cease to apply to and in the UK from March 30, 2019.  This “cliff edge” scenario will seriously affect citizens’ rights, the flow of trade and investment, air and road transport, financial services, energy efficiency, maritime and fishing rights, education, technical standards and a myriad of other areas affecting our daily lives.

Over the past year the European Commission published 88 sector-specific notices to inform stakeholders about the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the Union without an agreement. The Commission has so far made 18 legislative proposals, which are intended to remedy the negative impacts of a “no deal” Brexit on citizens, businesses and public administrations.

The proposed measures are time-limited. They target specific areas and aim to mitigate the interruptions caused by the lack of a transition period. These EU unilateral measures also provide a breathing space for private and public administrations to make the necessary technical preparations.

The latest of these measures, published on January 30, 2019, seek to protect the rights of young people participating in the Erasmus Plus programme, and the social security rights of EU citizens. They concern two sections of our society which can least afford to lose the rights they enjoy while the UK is a member of the EU.

The Erasmus Plus programme has been around for more than 30 years and is considered an EU flagship initiative. It is one of the most popular and successful EU actions among the younger generation of EU citizens. Since its inception it has given more than nine million young Europeans an opportunity for a learning mobility experience abroad through learning and training in another European country.

It helps to create a new generation of people who identify themselves as European and share Europe’s common values.  It is also a key instrument for reaching the target of a European Education Area by 2025.

There are currently around 14,000 young persons from the EU 27 following an Erasmus Plus programme in the UK, and around 7,000 UK learners in the EU 27. These include students, trainees in higher and vocational education, and educational staff.

The Commission has so far made 18 legislative proposals, which are intended to remedy the negative impacts of a “no deal” Brexit

If the withdrawal agreement is not signed, and no transition period would enter into effect on March 30, they would not be able to complete their Erasmus Plus term and may no longer be eligible for grants. Participants would have to interrupt their learning and training activities.

The aim of this contingency measure is to guarantee that in the case of a “no deal” Brexit, Erasmus students and trainees, both from the EU 27 and from the UK, would be able to complete their studies and continue to receive the relevant funding or grants. This would apply to ongoing activities which would have started before the date on which UK leaves the EU.

Malta has one of the fastest growing rates of participation in the Erasmus programme. More than 3,100 Maltese students, trainees and educational staff take part in over 70 projects each year. The UK is by far the top receiving country for Maltese participants.

The second contingency proposal published on January 30, 2019, aims to safeguard the social security rights of EU citizens in case of a “no deal” Brexit. Throughout the Brexit negotiations the EU consistently insisted on the priority of protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU. Among these rights are the entitlements of those citizens who exercised their right of free movement before the date of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.

The proposed contingency regulation ensures that member states would continue to apply the core principles of EU social security coordination, namely the principles of equality of treatment, assimilation and aggregation.

The social security entitlements covered by the contingency measure includeperiods of insurance and self-employment or residence in the UK before the Brexit date. This means, for example, that the years worked in the UK by a national of the EU 27 before Brexit will be taken into account in the calculation of his/her pension rights by the competent authorities in the EU member state where he/she retires.

To complete the picture, it is relevant to mention that the UK government made an announcement on December 6, 2018, on citizens’ rights in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. The UK government has taken steps to remove any ambiguity and provide complete reassurance for EU citizens in the UK. With regard to social security contributions, the UK government said that it was exploring options to protect past social security contributions, made in the EU and in the UK, in the event of a “no deal” scenario.

It is clear that social security coordination requires reciprocity. Developments both in the EU and in the UK indicate that there will be reciprocity with regard to social security entitlements even in a “no deal” scenario.

It is important to mention that, irrespective of Brexit, thanks to the bilateral agreements on health and on social security signed between Malta and the UK, the status of Maltese citizens resident in the UK and of UK citizens resident in Malta will remain largely unchanged as far as health and social security are concerned.

Further reassurance has been given by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in a statement lately in Parliament, that is, that Malta and the UK had agreed that after Brexit all bilateral arrangements between the two countries would remain in place. 

As Brexit Day is fast approaching and as matters currently stand, a ‘no-deal’ scenario is still very possible, even if highly undesirable given its potential disruption. Discussions between the sides must continue, aimed at eventually agreeing a withdrawal agreement to ensure, as much as possible, a controlled Brexit for all businesses and individuals - and to allow time for the two sides to define out a permanent trading relationship.

However, it is similarly imperative that together with all our EU partners we also in parallel effectively prepare ourselves on all the affected fronts for a possible no-deal scenario always in the best interest of all our citizens not only in the immediate period post-March 29 but also in the months and years to come.

Edward Zammit Lewis is a Labour Party MP and chairman of the Foreign and European Affairs Parliamentary Standing Committee.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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