As politicians try to thrash out a deal on Brexit, the lives of millions of people in the UK have been left in limbo as they wait with uncertainty to see what the future holds.
European Union leaders met in Brussels on Wednesday evening in an attempt to unlock Brexit negotiations at a crucial summit. As Theresa May landed and politicians launched 11th hour talks, HuffPost UK spoke to people plagued by a deep sense of insecurity – who told us they are putting major life decisions, such as weddings and house moves, on ice due to the instability.
NHS staff, military veterans, small business owners and EU nationals in the UK have spoken of the impact of continuing Brexit uncertainty – and the crucial decisions they face as Britain prepares to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.
“We are being used as bargaining chips” many of them warned, as they called for political leaders on both side of the negotiations to reach a breakthrough.
The Romanian Nurse: ‘My Wedding Is On Ice’
Romanian nurse Angi Cioabla has placed her wedding on hold as she waits to hear whether she will be able to stay and continue her career in the UK.
The 32-year-old endoscopy nurse has been in the UK for four years, working for two years at Castle Hill Hospital in Hull in East Yorkshire before moving to the privately-run London Clinic in Marylebone. She trained as a nurse in her home country and has also worked in Italy.
“I came to the UK for a different experience,” she told HuffPost UK. “I wanted to see another country.”
When she made the move, the Brexit referendum was not on the political radar, but soon after the vote she quickly realised it would have a direct impact on her life. She’s worked in the UK for less than five years, and she will have to apply for “pre-settled status”. The uncertainty has prompted her to defer major life decisions.
“I was planning to buy a house, but it will be very hard after this,” she said. “My wedding is also on hold. I got married in August, but only in a registry office, we didn’t do a proper wedding. I still have to wait and see what’s happening.
“I would like to buy a house too but if I decide to buy here and something happens and I have to leave, it will be hard for us.
“It is very difficult because you don’t know what to do. I’m thinking that if I do the wedding now with the money that I’ve saved and something happens and I have to move and live somewhere else, I will need money. So I don’t know what to do.”
She is also worried that even if she is able to stay in the UK, her family will find it hard to visit and she is considering making use of her continuing rights as an EU national to go and live in Germany instead.
The endoscopy nurse, who helps treat patients with bowel and gastric cancers and Crohn’s disease, worked with many other EU nationals at the Castle Hill Hospital in Hull, who were all left wondering what would come next.
“I don’t mind about the politics of Brexit, I don’t watch politics and I don’t care about that,” she says. “But I’m worried about my personal life with this Brexit, my job and everything.
“There are 27 people at the place where I work now and do you know how many are British? Two. If the British people want to work, why are there not two east Europeans and 25 British, do you know what I mean. The 25 are all different nationalities.
“In a way you need us more than we need you, because we can go all over the place still. But here, for the NHS it is so difficult and they need so many people, so many nurses and doctors.”
The Army Veteran: ‘I Served, So Why Is My Country Failing Me?’
Veterans of the armed forces have also criticised the government for failing to ring-fence the rights of EU spouses who married into the military.
Ex-Army man Duncan Hodgkins has highlighted the cases of serving military officers who have been unable to take up foreign postings because they fear their EU spouses will not be able to return to the UK after Brexit in March.
He is a spokesman for the group Veterans in Europe, which is pro-remain and has around 170 members, 70-80% of whom have European partners.
“You have to be careful with serving soldiers because they can’t be named as it’s against military regulations to be political on either side” he told HuffPost UK.
“But one of the cases I know of, her husband had a posting abroad, a three-year accompanied posting, which means the family can go with him. Had this EU national gone with her husband, there is every likelihood that she would lose her settlement rights to come back to the United Kingdom. So she couldn’t go with him.
“So you had the perverse situation where you had a Brit abroad serving with the armed forces, and his EU wife having to remain in the UK. That appears to have been resolved ... But that’s not an ideal situation for him and that’s just one example.”
The Stratford-Upon-Avon veteran met his Dutch wife Wilma while serving with the British Army in Germany and they moved back to the UK in 1992, marrying the following year.
His wife has lived here for 25 years but until recently the Dutch system did not allow for dual nationality, so she is not a British citizen. The couple have “taken matters into their own hands” and his wife is now applying for British citizenship at a cost of roughly £2,000. But a planned move from Stratford-Upon-Avon to Scotland has been placed on hold.
“We were considering moving house, but with my wife being a European there were scare stories going around that people were being refused mortgages,” said Hodgkins.
“We made a decision, having heard of someone who had been refused a mortgage ... not to go down that route. So we are still in the house we had planned to move out of three years ago. So our life is on hold there. We want to move to a different part of the country but we feel we can’t until my wife’s situation is resolved.”
The 54-year-old left the army after a decade’s service in 1992 and now runs a vintage shop online and sells at antique fairs. His 46-year-old wife owns her own cleaning business. “We’re both low skilled and low paid.”
Asked if he feels that having served his country, it is now failing him, Hodgkins says: “Absolutely.”
The German GP: ‘I May Move To Ireland’
German GP Dr Hubertus von Blumenthal, 57, has been a doctor since 1997 and has worked at his current surgery in Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, since 1999. He moved to the UK in 1989 under freedom on movement rights conferred by EU membership.
The father-of-four is a German citizen and passport holder and until the Brexit vote, he had never thought he would need to apply for leave to remain in the UK.
“I’ve spent 27-and-a-half years in the UK, so that’s longer than I’ve spent in Germany,” he said. “But I will basically have to make an application to retain some of the rights that hitherto we had – and to lose some of them, and I will have to pay for that privilege. And this is all to stay in my home, because after all this is my home.”
Under settled status proposals set out by the British government to guarantee the rights of the estimated 3 million Europeans living in the UK, he would retain the right to live in the UK but says it will come at a cost – including the loss of the right to vote in local elections. He resents having to jump through hoops, particularly given his long career of public service in the UK.
“What a lot of people don’t really get or understand is I’ve lived most of my life in Britain and I would have thought that the contribution that I’ve made to this country was a worthwhile and appreciated one,” he says.
“And now suddenly to tell me you will have to make an application, you will have to go and jump through certain hoops, you have to pay some money for the privilege of staying where you already are, is something that I think is anathema to what Brits are so proud about, just that sense of British fairness, which has clearly gone down the drain.”
The rights that he would lose include entitlements relating to relationships with relatives remaining in Europe, for example for breaks on the continent to look after family. He can also vote in local elections and European elections, but not Parliamentary elections in the UK and crucially, not the Brexit referendum.
The practice, where he is a partner, has 12,000 patients and it serves rural villages in Cambridgeshire. The GP says his role will be difficult to fill if he does make the difficult decision to leave the UK after Britain’s exit from the EU.
“I know of practices that are either closing down or having to be taken over because of recruitment issues,” he says. “If I were to leave and retire, I could imagine our practice struggling to find a full time replacement for me.
“I don’t think I would go back to Germany, but I have an option to go to Ireland, because my wife is Irish, so that’s something that I’m considering. I think that I will know by April next year.”
What would need to change for him to stay in the UK? Either a deferment of Article 50, which triggered Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, or it being shelved altogether he says.
He has four children aged 29 to 35 and two grandchildren, all of whom are German citizens despite having lived in the UK their whole lives. So three generations of his family now facing a similar dilemma. All of them will have to apply for settled status if they wish to stay in the UK or move elsewhere.
“I often think as a German I’m in the premier league of foreigners, which I don’t feel smug about at all,” he says. “I identify with Romanians and Bulgarians and Polish people as equal, whether they are in the medical profession or stacking shelves or picking fruit or whatever.
“I think that it would be a disgrace to make a distinction, which is again why it riles me so much when people say, ‘Oh they need you, you’ll be alright they need you’.”
The Business Owner: ‘Manufacturing Costs Are High’
While small business owner Melanie Goldsmith has a more positive outlook, she too has found that Brexit uncertainty has made future planning difficult.
The 29-year-old co-founded sweets company Smith & Sinclair with business partner Emile Bernard, also 29, four-and-a-half years ago. It manufactures alcoholic sweets and has expanded rapidly with a staff of 14, offices in south London, and turnover of £1.2million this year.
Goldsmith explains the Brexit referendum came about 18 months after the business was set up, and says decisions about manufacturing have been impacted by it.
“Because what we do is very technically difficult, we’ve kept manufacturing in-house for a very long time on purpose to ensure quality control is manageable,” she says. “Our volumes are now becoming too high for us to continue manufacturing in our facility. Potentially we would have looked to outsource sooner, but you didn’t know if European countries were suddenly going to double their manufacturing costs for UK businesses.”
With an American mother and German late-father, who came to the UK during the Second World War as part of the Kindertransport scheme, Goldsmith says she feels European and places a high value on having a diverse workforce.
“A big risk is losing really key, talented, hard working immigrants in this country,” she says. “The people in the office who are here full time have been here for more than 10 years. So you would hope that if everyone stands by their word, they will remain unaffected. But we worry for friends of ours and the people that support us through our experiences, like part time staffing.”
The challenges the company faces include being able to make sound production decisions due to tumultuous pricing, which has been unstable for the last two years, although Goldsmith is clear the reasons are complex and not just related to Brexit.
She believes the toughest challenge for businesses will be to react to any 11th decisions over Brexit.
“You can’t be reactive when nothing’s been decided and what I would hate for myself personally and for other businesses in the UK would be for there to be a really shocking last minute decision either way, whether that is they put another referendum to the public or they decide on an extreme either way.”
She is a member of a community called Young Foodies, which started last year, and has brought together businesses that collectively turn over more than £100million in the UK, all within the food and drink start-up community. Goldsmith would like to see more support for start-ups and small businesses and government support to make UK manufacturing cost effective.
“The Brexit question comes up a lot for small businesses, and I do think it’s really important that people start communicating what could be done better rather than what’s being done badly,” she said.
The Translator: ‘EU Turmoil Brought Me Here’
NHS translator Peio Astigarraga has lived in London for 25 years and originally came to the UK after Spain joined the EU in 1985. Now, decades later, he is once again facing a seismic change in his European identity.
“At the time, Spain was going through quite a crisis after coming into Europe,” he says. “Basically there wasn’t really a lot of work there and the prospects were quite bleak at the time, and my English was quite good, so I came over. Had I been fluent in French or German I would have gone to France or Germany.”
Asked how he feels about his own identity, he says: “I am Basque, it’s rather different than Spanish culture, but I also feel like a Londoner totally, I’ve been here for 25 years and this is my home completely. The reason I’m here is because I’ve made such wonderful friends and in a sense my second family is here.”
But the 53-year-old, who lives in Hackney, is now seriously considering leaving and returning to Spain because of uncertainty over the future. Meanwhile a planned extension of his housing trust home is on hold, and he has stalled on career plans.
“I was considering going on the national register for interpreters here, and I’m going to hold to see what happens and instead I might do an English teaching course and go to Spain instead, a change of career really,” he says. “I suppose I will make a decision about Christmas time because allegedly by the end of this month we are going to know exactly what the deal is and what’s going to happen. It depends how things shape up here.”
Astigarraga, who is chairman of the London Basque Society, feels anger towards the UK for abandoning the European project after being integral in changing the way Europe operates.
“It was the UK influence that shaped Europe the way it is now in part, it’s not just down to Germany or France,” he says. “In a sense that actually makes me feel betrayed by the UK because it’s like you go somewhere, make a mess and then do a runner as it were and leave the mess behind, instead of being brave and if Europe needs to change then go change it from within.”
He believes the British public were manipulated over Brexit through a “relentless media onslaught” saying he has seen an increase in xenophobia.
As a result he is concerned that settled status rights of EU nationals within the UK are not guaranteed by primary legislation and has already seen several friends leave the country.
“We were supposed to already have a deal in place regarding this, but the government hasn’t achieved that yet. They have said it will be sorted by the end of October now, which is going beyond the deadline that they had. So the situation is kind of in limbo, so it’s quite scary not knowing.”
The Government’s Response: ‘EU Citizens Can Stay’
The government says the draft Withdrawal Agreement published in March will secure the rights of EU citizens and their family members living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU.
And during her speech last month, prime minister Theresa May confirmed that in the event of a no deal Brexit, all EU citizens resident in the UK before March 29, 2019 will be able to stay and their rights protected.
A Department for Exiting the European Union spokesman said: “Securing the rights of citizens has always been our priority and we have delivered on this commitment. The Prime Minister was very clear when she spoke after Salzburg – that even in the unlikely event of no deal EU citizens resident in the UK by the 29 March 2019 will be able to stay.”
A Home Office spokesperson added: “The Government is clear that EU citizens play an important and positive role in our economy and society and we want those who have made their lives here to stay. Securing the rights of citizens has always been our priority and we have delivered on this commitment.
“We have made great progress in preparing for the implementation of the EU Settlement Scheme, which will make it easy for EU citizens to get the status they need. The process is particularly straightforward and free of charge for EU citizens who hold valid permanent residence or indefinite leave to remain documentation.”
Under the EU Settlement Scheme, which will launch on March 30 next year, EU citizens will need to complete three steps – prove their identity, show that they live in the UK and declare any criminal convictions.
The Home Office told HuffPost UK it is currently undergoing testing during a “managed live trial” of the scheme and EU citizens working at 12 NHS trusts, and students and staff from three Liverpool universities, have been invited to make applications through the new digital system. All those who are successful will be granted settled status.
There will be no change in the rights of EU citizens and their family members until the end of the implementation period on December 31, 2020.