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Brexit bureaucracy creates British nightmare for Dutch boat captain

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A British government Home Office van is seen parked in west London, Britain, in this photograph taken on May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
Dutch boat captain Ernst-Jan de Groot, poses for a picture a few miles east of the Scottish  island of Bac Mor, also known as the Dutchman's Cap, in this handout photograph taken in July 2015. Charles Lyster/Ernst-Jan de Groot/Handout via REUTERS

When Dutch boat captain and engineer Ernst-Jan de Groot applied to continue working in Britain after Brexit, he became ensnared in a bureaucratic nightmare because of an online glitch and says he is now likely to lose his job, write Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Macaskill.

Under new immigration rules coming into force, de Groot faces the prospect of losing the right to come to Britain to work unless he can successfully apply for a visa through a government website by the end of June.

Following its departure from the European Union's orbit at the end of December, Britain is changing its immigration system, ending the priority for EU citizens over people from elsewhere.

While the government has so far processed more than 5 million applications from EU citizens to continue living in Britain, lawyers and campaigners estimate there are tens of thousands who, like de Groot, risk missing the deadline.

Those who succeed are not given a physical document to prove they have the right to live or work in Britain, so they remain hostage to websites when they need to show evidence of their status at borders, or when they apply for mortgages or loans.

The experience of de Groot and eight other applicants spoken to by Reuters shows how Brexit has put some EU citizens at the mercy of government websites and officials, and how Britain may be inadvertently discouraging people with skills it needs.

"I am trapped in a bureaucratic maze that would even astonish Kafka, and there is no exit," de Groot said. "I have tried everything I can think of to communicate the simple fact that their website is not functioning as it should."

De Groot, 54, has worked happily in Britain on and off for the past six years.

He sails long, narrow barges from the Netherlands to England to be used as floating homes. He also spends a few months a year building boats at a shipyard near London and captains a tall ship around the west coast of Scotland in the summer.

A fluent English speaker, de Groot says he followed the post-Brexit rules by applying for a frontier worker permit to allow him to work in Britain while not being resident.

The online application was straightforward until he was asked to provide a photo. The next page of his application, which was reviewed by Reuters, said: "you do not need to provide new photos", and there was no option to upload one.

A few weeks later, his application was rejected - for not having a photo.

So began a labyrinthine nightmare of telephone calls, emails and bureaucratic disarray. De Groot estimates he has spent over 100 hours contacting government officials who he said were either unable to help or gave conflicting information.

Some officials told him there was a technical issue that would be resolved quickly. Others said there was no problem.

Each time he phoned, de Groot said he asked the person to make a record of his complaint. On his last call, he said an official told him they did not have access to individual cases, so that was impossible.

He tried to start a new application to bypass the glitch but each time he entered his passport number it linked to his first application and he remained trapped in the photo-upload loop.

The Home Office, the government department that administers immigration policy, did not respond to requests for comment about de Groot's case or the lack of physical documents proving the status of successful applicants.

TAKE BACK CONTROL

Over the past two decades, Britain experienced unprecedented immigration. When it was part of the EU, the bloc's citizens had a right to live and work in the country.

A demand to reduce immigration was a driving force behind the campaign for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, with supporters calling for Britain to "take back control" of its borders.

Most EU citizens who want to stay will need to have applied for settled status before July. Others, such as de Groot, need to apply for visas to work in Britain.

Landlords, employers, the health service and other public departments will be able to ask for proof from EU nationals of their immigration status from next month.

The Home Office has a reputation for aggressively targeting people who do not have the correct documentation.

The government apologised three years ago for the Home Office's treatment of thousands of Caribbean migrants, who were denied basic rights, including some who were wrongly deported, despite having arrived legally in Britain decades earlier.

So far this year, 3,294 EU nationals were denied entry to Britain with some taken to detention centres because they could not show a correct visa or their residency status.

Lawyers, charities and diplomats say some EU nationals may be unaware they need to apply, or are struggling to navigate the bureaucracy.

Chris Benn, a British immigration lawyer with Seraphus, a law firm contracted by the EU delegation to the United Kingdom to provide advice about the rules, has spent the last three years speaking at events telling EU citizens how to navigate the new system.

Although Benn said it was impossible to know how many people still need to apply, he is worried tens of thousands of people, and possibly a hundred thousand, may miss the deadline.

Benn says he is still meeting well-educated, fluent English speakers who don't realise they need to apply. He is particularly worried the elderly, and people in rural areas such as those working on farms, may be unaware of the new rules.

"If even a very small percentage miss out, you will have very widespread issues," he said.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

While the system has worked well for millions, the nine EU nationals struggling with applications spoken to by Reuters say it seems overwhelmed. They complain of long waits to speak to staff in call centres and, when they get through, they are not given case-specific advice.

One of them, a Spanish student in Edinburgh, told Reuters he was concerned he would be unable to finish his studies because his settled status application in November has been put on hold.

Three days after applying he was informed in documents reviewed by Reuters that police considered he was being investigated for "culpable and reckless conduct" - an offence in Scotland for behaviour that exposes an individual, or the public, to the significant risk to their life or health.

The student, who asked not to be named publicly for fear of jeopardising career prospects, said he had never been in trouble with the police and he had no idea what the alleged investigation might relate to.

He requested details from the Scottish police. In replies seen by Reuters, they said their databases showed he was not listed for any crime, nor under investigation.

He has approached his university, campaign groups for EU nationals and the Spanish embassy asking for help. So far, no one has been able to get him out of the bureaucratic maze.

"The panic has been constant and gradual," he said. "I end up thinking about it all the time because I might get literally kicked out of the country."

A spokeswoman for Police Scotland directed questions to the Home Office.

The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment about the student's case or complaints about call centres.

De Groot is equally frustrated. The company that usually employs him to captain a ship in the summer has started to look for someone else.

Diplomats say another problem is looming: what will Britain do with EU citizens who don't have the right documents by July?

The government has said those who miss the deadline will lose the right to services such as free non-urgent healthcare and could be deported. Guidelines suggest leniency will only be granted in certain cases, such as for people with a physical or mental incapacity.

Even those with settled status are concerned that without a physical document as proof, they could still end up in immigration limbo if websites fail.

When Rafael Almeida, a research fellow in neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, applied for a mortgage this year, he was asked to provide a share code generated by a government website to prove his settled status.

Almeida said the website would not work and he was greeted with a message: "There's a problem with this service at the moment. Try again later."

After a month of failed attempts to generate the code, Almeida's mortgage broker persuaded the lender to accept only his passport as proof of identity. The website is still not working.

The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Almeida is worried that from next month he will unable to access healthcare, apply for a job if he ever wants to, or return to Portugal to see family or friends.

“I am incredibly anxious, I am incredibly frustrated with the people who should have been taking care of this,” he said. “I am just really worried for the future.”

Brexit

Germany’s Merkel urges pragmatic approach to Northern Ireland

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) called on Saturday for a “pragmatic solution” to disagreements over part of the Brexit deal that covers border issues with Northern Ireland, Reuters Read more.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain will do "whatever it takes" to protect its territorial integrity in a trade dispute with the European Union, threatening emergency measures if no solution was found.

The EU has to defend its common market, Merkel said, but on technical questions there could be a way forward in the dispute, she told a news conference during a Group of Seven leaders' summit.

"I have said that I favour a pragmatic solution for contractual agreements, because a cordial relationship is of utmost significance for Britain and the European Union," she said.

Referring to a conversation she had with U.S. President Joe Biden about geopolitical issues, Merkel said they agreed that Ukraine must continue to remain a transit country for Russian natural gas once Moscow completes the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.

The $11 billion pipeline will carry gas to Germany directly, something Washington fears could undermine Ukraine and increase Russia's influence over Europe.

Biden and Merkel are due to meet in Washington on July 15, and the strain on bilateral ties caused by the project will be on the agenda.

The G7 sought on Saturday to counter China's growing influence by offering developing nations an infrastructure plan that would rival President Xi Jinping's multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative. L5N2NU045

Asked about the plan, Merkel said the G7 was not yet ready to specify how much financing could be made available.

“Our financing instruments often are not as quickly available as developing countries need them,” she said

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Macron offers UK's Johnson 'Le reset' if he keeps his Brexit word

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French President Emmanuel Macron offered on Saturday (12 June) to reset relations with Britain as long as Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands by the Brexit divorce deal he signed with the European Union, writes Michel Rose.

Since Britain completed its exit from the EU late last year, relations with the bloc and particularly France have soured, with Macron becoming the most vocal critic of London's refusal to honour the terms of part of its Brexit deal.

At a meeting at the Group of Seven rich nations in southwestern England, Macron told Johnson the two countries had common interests, but that ties could improve only if Johnson kept his word on Brexit, a source said.

"The president told Boris Johnson there needed to be a reset of the Franco-British relationship," the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

"This can happen provided that he keeps his word with the Europeans," the source said, adding that Macron spoke in English to Johnson.

The Elysee Palace said that France and Britain shared a common vision and common interests on many global issues and "a shared approach to transatlantic policy".

Johnson will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel later on Saturday, where she could also raise the dispute over a part of the EU divorce deal that is called the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The British leader, who is hosting the G7 meeting, wants the summit to focus on global issues, but has stood his ground on trade with Northern Ireland, calling on the EU to be more flexible in its approach to easing trade to the province from Britain.

The protocol aims to keep the province, which borders EU member Ireland, in both the United Kingdom's customs territory and the EU's single market. But London says the protocol is unsustainable in its current form because of the disruption it has caused to supplies of everyday goods to Northern Ireland.

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'Whatever it takes', UK's Johnson warns EU over post-Brexit trade

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Britain will do "whatever it takes" to protect its territorial integrity in a trade dispute with the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday (12 June), threatening emergency measures if no solution was found, write Elizabeth Piper and Michel Rose.

The threat by Johnson seemed to break a temporary truce in a war of words over part of the Brexit deal that covers border issues with Northern Ireland, the focus for tensions since Britain completed its exit from the EU late last year.

Despite US President Joe Biden encouraging them to find a compromise, Johnson used a G7 summit to indicate no softening in his position on what is called the Northern Ireland protocol that covers border issues with the British province.

"I think we can sort it out but ... it is up to our EU friends and partners to understand that we will do whatever it takes," Johnson told Sky News.

"I think if the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16," he added, referring to a safeguard clause that allows either side to take measures if they believe the agreement is leading to economic, societal or environment difficulties.

"I've talked to some of our friends here today, who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads."

His comments came after he met French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and top EU officials Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at a Group of Seven summit in southwestern England.

The EU told the British government once again that it must implement the Brexit deal in full and introduce checks on certain goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. Britain repeated its call for urgent and innovative solutions to ease the friction.

The province has an open border with EU member Ireland so the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed as a way to preserve the bloc's single market after Britain left.

The protocol essentially kept the province in the EU’s customs union and adhering to many of the single market rules, creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea between the British province and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Anti-Brexit protesters holding a banner and flags demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel remove their protective face masks as they meet during the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/Pool

Since Britain exited the bloc's orbit, Johnson has unilaterally delayed the implementation of some provisions of the protocol, including checks on chilled meats such as sausages moving from the mainland to Northern Ireland, saying it was causing disruption to some supplies to the province.

"Both sides must implement what we agreed on," von der Leyen, European Commission president, said after meeting Johnson alongside Michel, the European Council president.

"There is complete EU unity on this," she said, adding that the deal had been agreed, signed and ratified by both Johnson's government and the bloc.

Germany's Merkel said the two sides could find pragmatic solutions on technical questions, while the EU protected its single market.

Earlier this week, talks between the two sets of negotiators ended in an exchange of threats over the so-called "sausage wars". An EU official said at the G7 that there was a need for the rhetoric to be toned down.

The head of the World Trade Organization said she hoped the tensions would not escalate into a trade war.

The United States has also expressed grave concern the dispute could undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.

That agreement largely brought an end to the "Troubles" - three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.

Though Brexit was not part of the formal agenda for the G7 summit in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay, it has more than once threatened to cloud the meeting.

France's Macron offered to reset relations with Britain as long as Johnson stood by the Brexit deal - a characterisation of the meeting that was rejected by the British team. Read more.

Brexit has also strained the situation in Northern Ireland, where the pro-British "unionist" community say they are now split off from the rest of the United Kingdom and the Brexit deal breaches the 1998 peace deal. But the open border between the province and Ireland was a key principle of the Good Friday deal.

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