Interview with Brussels Commissioner Alain Hutchinson

The Brussels Commissioner for Europe Alain Hutchinson spoke to Brussels Express about his “personal sadness” at the UK’s decision to quit the EU.

A Brusselair with British roots

Hutchinson’s father was a British soldier in Montgomery’s 8th Army who helped liberate Brussels from the Nazis in 1944 and he says he finds Brexit “particularly sad.” He said, “The UK is historically very close to Europe but we will now see it going back onto its island and closing doors.” Hutchinson, whose office has been inundated with pleas for help from UK expats in Brussels and Belgium, said his close connections to Britain had merely served to increase his frustration at the country’s upcoming exit. His father Percival, one of eight children, was born in Salisbury who was among the British soldiers who, in 1944, made the first in a series of decisive landings on Normandy beach in North France. “It was actually the British, not the Americans as some think, who were first to liberate Brussels from the Nazis,” he recalls. Hutchinson’s  Belgian mother Marie later went to the UK with his father but the couple eventually moved to Belgium where they settled and where Hutchinson was born in 1949. “I was a child of the war and this historical detail resonates very much with me,” he told Brussels Express.“This connection to the UK, which even today is very strong, is one of the reasons why I feel so sad  about Brexit.”

Alain Hutchinson, Brussels Commissioner for Europe

The Brussels-born official adds, “I actually think that Brexit may not yet. It is not irreversible and could still be stopped.” He is particularly critical of former UK PM David Cameron over his decision to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU, saying, “The whole thing was managed very badly and rather irresponsibly.” He said, “The UK is historically very close to Europe but we will now see it going back onto its island and closing doors. That is so sad.”

In a wide-ranging interview, he called for an end to the “cloud of uncertainty” facing British staff who work in the EU institutions. Hutchinson says he has been contacted by scores of EU civil servants from the UK who are “very concerned” about their future when the UK leaves the EU. Such concern is shared, he says, by children of British eurocrats, “who were born and are being educated” in Belgium. One particular area of concern is the “discrimination” facing non-Belgian nationals, including Britons, who work in the EU institutions.

British are applying for Belgian nationality

The reason is that non-Belgian EU eurocrats are given a “special” identity card when they start working for one of the EU institutions, such as the European commission or parliament. But this card confers very limited rights on the holder and, for example, is not currently recognised by the Belgian authorities as a valid document for anyone seeking Belgian nationality.

Hutchinson, who was appointed by the Brussels government, has now written to two Belgian ministries, justice and foreign affairs, asking them to either accept the card or scrap it altogether. He said, “This, of course, is a problem not just for the Brits but all non-Belgians who work in the EU institutions. It is discriminatory and needs to end.”

He said scores of Britons have applied for Belgian nationality since the EU Referendum in the UK which will see the UK leave the EU by 2019.

In Ixelles alone, there have been 400 applications and 200 in St Gilles, another Brussels suburb popular with British expats. Hutchinson, whose job is to act as a “link” between the EU institutions and expats living and working in Brussels, said his office had been contacted by “many” British civil servants in the EU asking for information about their rights, post Brexit.

Hutchinson, himself a former MEP and currently a deputy mayor in Brussels, said, “Those who have been contacting us are saying they are very concerned about what will happen to them and their children, many of whom were born and are being raised and educated in this country, when the UK finally leaves the EU. It is one reason why so many appear to have been seeking Belgian nationality.”

The official, who has been in his current post since 2014, also revealed that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator in the Brexit talks with the UK, had told him that Brits working in the institutions should be considered as “European rather than British civil servants” after the UK leaves in March 2019.

His office, located near the commission, runs an “expat welcome desk” when people of all nationalities can obtain advice about their legal rights in Belgium. He is also critical of the UK government for submitting bids for the European Capital of Culture in 2023, four years after it is due to have left the EU.

In 2023, a UK city was scheduled to share the title with one from Hungary. Belfast and Derry, Milton Keynes, Dundee, Leeds and Nottingham are in the running. However,it still remains unclear if, post Brexit, the UK will be able to enter a city for the contest in 2023. A “culture city” is designated by the EU for a period of one calendar year during which it organises a series of cultural events “with a strong European dimension.” The UK Culture Secretary Karen Bradley formally launched the competition for the title in December 2016 following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. A UK Government source said, “As the UK is still a member of the European Union, it is currently the country’s legal right to host the event. However, whether or not the event goes ahead after Brexit is dependent on the outcome of negotiations with the EU.”

But Hutchinson said, “It is irresponsible and unfair of the UK government to submit bids knowing the UK will be out of the EU by then.”

Future of the European Union

Turning to the future of the EU, he also proposed beefing up the powers of the Committee of the Regions,  of which he is a member, so that it enjoys co decision competences along with the European parliament. At present, the CoR has relatively limited powers and can act only in an “advisory” role in the EU decision making process. But Hutchinson said, “I would like it to have more powers, a bit like the House of Lords in the UK, so that it can have a real say on legislature proposed by the commission.”

He believes this could help restore public trust in the EU, saying, “The  CoR is the EU body which is closest to citizens and this could help bridge the democratic deficit.”