Belgian secretary of state for asylum and migration Maggie de Block has sought to allay the fears of the thousands of British expats in the country by issuing a statement.
“The withdrawal of the UK from the European Union will have important consequences on social security, residence and the provision of medical care. We will safeguard these rights in Belgium.”
De Block said that after the UK Parliament had rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday evening, the Belgian government was preparing itself for all possible scenarios.
“We have to, more than ever, take into account the scenario of a hard Brexit. We will guarantee citizens’ established rights and rights to residence based on reciprocity between both of our countries,” De Block added in the statement in Dutch.
Belgian deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders tweeted on Wednesday: “Guaranteeing citizens’ rights in case of a no-deal is a priority. For Belgians in the United Kingdom and for UK citizens in Belgium. The government is working on it.”
In a video statement, Alison Rose, the UK’s ambassador in Belgium, also confirmed on Wednesday that “whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal, British citizens already in Belgium will be able to stay living and working in Belgium”.
The ambassador added that the Belgian government will publish a “package of measures” that will ensure the status quo is preserved.
“We have to, more than ever, take into account the scenario of a hard Brexit. We will guarantee citizens’ established rights and rights to residence based on reciprocity between both of our countries" Maggie De Block
NOTE OF CAUTION
Belgian MEP and chair of Parliament’s Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed this move, adding that MEPs would “continue to push for this to be an EU-wide initiative”.
However, a Brussels-based citizens’ campaign group has urged caution to the Belgian move.
Roger Casale, of the New Europeans, said the statement by De Block “is still conditional on reciprocity.”
Speaking on Friday, he told this website that, “A policy of wait-and-see is not a unilateral guarantee.”
The former UK Labour MP added, "It is good news that Maggie de Block wants to guarantee the rights of Britons in Belgium, but a statement of intent is not the same as action now."
“A ‘wait-and-see-what-the-British-do’ approach is not a unilateral guarantee and will give little comfort to the 25,000 British residents in Belgium.”
Casale added, “New Europeans will continue to work with Ixelles Council, Belgian MPs, MEPs and others to make it clear to the Belgian authorities that they should guarantee the rights of Britons in the EU immediately and without equivocation.”
“Meanwhile we continue to work in the UK to defend the rights of Belgians and EU citizens living and working in Britain.”
Casale said that New Europeans is also continuing to campaign for an EU Green Card to be given to Belgians and all EU citizens in the UK and to Britons in Europe to ring fence their status and rights.
HOT ON THE HEELS OF THE DUTCH
Belgium’s reassurance comes after the Netherlands also recently confirmed that British expats in its country would be able to continue to live and work there. A letter sent by the Dutch immigration services explains that British nationals will have 15 months in which to apply for a residence permit, at a cost of €57.
This follows in the footsteps of Italy and Germany while France has said it is also willing to offer the same terms providing the UK reciprocates.
Despite these moves, Verhofstadt said he remains “concerned” about the plight of the 1.5m British citizens in the EU and the 3.5m EU citizens in the UK.
“Deal or no deal, we will do everything in our power to safeguard their rights, rights as foreseen in the Withdrawal Agreement. If necessary together with our civil liberties committee, we will directly engage with the House of Commons and their Home Office Select Committee, to secure that.”
The former Belgian PM, who has regularly criticised the way the UK has handled the Brexit process, added, “Our citizens can never, never be the victim of the party political games around Brexit.”
UK CLOUDED BY UNCERTAINTY
Meanwhile, there were media reports in the UK on Friday that pharmacists in the UK are struggling to obtain many common medicines and that uncertainty over Brexit will only make it worse.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary said: “It’s astonishing that there remains so much uncertainty for patients more than two and a half years after the Brexit vote. This could be the biggest disruption to patient safety we have ever seen."
“Not only do we have a shortage of drugs, the Government is also proposing emergency legislation that means patients might not get access to the medicines their GPs prescribe."
“The Prime Minister should do the responsible thing and rule out a no deal Brexit which will do so much damage to the NHS and patients.”