Interview on my new role in Committee of Italians Abroad, London

I was recently interviewed on Complitaly, which runs an app for Italians living in the UK, about my recent election to the volunteer consultative body to the Italian Consulate and Embassy in the UK, the Committee of Italians Abroad, London (Comites Londra). Below is a shortened version roughly translated into English.

I originally arrived in the UK in 1996 and have been engaged in high-profile campaigns on environmental and social justice for at least 17 years. I have been involved defending the rights of European citizens post Brexit since 2017, when I joined the leading activists of the non-profit group the3million. In that role I met, with a group of citizens, the head of the delegation of the European Commission Michel Barnier and several European Parliamentarians, to ask that they help us in the agreements of withdrawal of Great Britain from the EU. Later, I joined the board of directors of the organisation.

Within Comites London, we have now created a working group on “Brexit and citizenship, research and the artistic world”. There is still a lot to do on Brexit, especially on Settled Status and the problems with obtaining British citizenship. On this I will keep in touch with the3million to coordinate any initiatives. Becoming a resident of a non-EU country also entails several additional bureaucratic problems for our fellow citizens, so it will be important to put pressure on the Consulate but also and above all the Italian government so that our requests are taken into consideration, in particular with regard to a Consulate. which does not have the necessary resources to cope with the very strong demand. But it is useless, in my opinion, to blame the Consulate.

The situation is the result of the fact that our needs as Italian citizens officially resident abroad (AIRE) have traditionally not been taken seriously enough by successive Italian governments. And if there is time, taking into account that we are volunteers, I hope we will also be able to take care of something else! There are many Italian people of great talent who are distinguishing themselves in Great Britain in the world of research and the artistic world that in my opinion should be more valued and supported.

Of my experience as an Italian in the UK I’ll just say this: having children, and raising them, far from the family of origin, and in a country subject to twelve years of austerity that has reduced the school and social-health system to the limit, is “not for the faint hearted “. And this even before Brexit and the pandemic took over.

Having said that, unlike a number of compatriots who have recently returned to Italy or left for other EU countries, most of us are here, and remain here. Great Britain, and London in particular, has offered me and continues to offer me so many fantastic opportunities. I hope it will remain a place where those who – at any age – want to continue learning, find creative solutions and adapt to changes, can still find good outlets. Living here has certainly taught me how essential it is – in life in general – to always look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.

I have been elected with the Moving Forward list, which defines itself as progressive and pro-European, but we are not linked to any particular political party; it is more a matter of general orientation. Our strength, in my opinion, is the bond that many of us have with various civil society groups and NGOs. However, I have always worked in a transversal way, and I collaborate with anyone who is willing to pursue common values. I am willing to raise the requests of citizens who want to contact us, to whatever political area they belong to, in both Italian and British institutions.

Elected to Committee of Italians abroad

I am pleased to announce that on 3rd December 2021 I was elected by Italian voters in the South England and Wales constituency to represent them in the London “Comites”. With me, three other long-standing campaigners for citizens’ rights were also elected: my good friends and fellow campaigners Elena Remigi, the founder of the InLimbo project for EU nationals in the UK and British citizens in the EU; composer and orchestra director Dimitri Scarlato; and Anna Cambiaggi, a campaigner for citizens’ rights post Brexit. Our coalition Moving Forward also proudly elected Golam Tipu, representing the very large number of Italian citizens living in the UK but not originally born in Italy.

The consultative, volunteer Comites London committee represents the interests of the largest community of Italians living in a foreign country, namely around 350,000 Italian citizens who live in this constituency (there are separate Comites for Manchester and the North of England and for Scotland). The main role of the Comites is to liaise between residents and the Consulate and Embassy, to bring forward issues that may arise, although it can also liaise with the authorities of the country of residence when needed and in coordination with the Consul. The Comites also organises social and cultural activities including those that promote the Italian language.

The Comites London is one of the most active in the world, particularly since the exit of the UK from the EU has thrown up a lot of issues for hundreds of thousands of Italians as well as millions of other EU nationals in the UK.

A difficult electoral campaign during a pandemic, but we succeeded in electing 5 people to the Comites anyway

I stood as an independent candidate within a progressive and pro-European coalition, to bring my experience on the board of directors of the3million group, which by its nature is without party affiliation. However, my candidacy was endorsed – like that of other candidates not affiliated with any political party – by the Rt. Hon. Massimo Ungaro, an Italian MP representing Italians who live in Northern Europe, simply on the basis of our track record in representing citizens’ rights. I would therefore also like to take this opportunity to thank him publicly for endorsing people based on their skills set rather than party affiliation.

I will write more about the Comites and its activities particularly in the context of Brexit – with its wide ranging implications for EU residents in the UK – in the coming weeks and months (in fact I’ve been elected for 5 years which feels slightly daunting!)

Special thanks to all the people who voted and helped spread the word about the elections and the Moving Forward list that I am part of. We will strive to represent and support the Italian community in England and Wales in the best possible way.

Migrants Are A Part Of British Society – Why Shouldn’t They Have Full Voting Rights?

Some ten million contributors to society, from fruit pickers to nurses and teachers to builders, are barred from having a say on what happens in Westminster – the #LetUsVote campaign would put this right.

Today, the Let us Vote campaign launches, backed by the3million, British in Europe and Another Europe is Possible. It estimates that there are ten million people who are part of British society but are barred from having a say on what happens at Westminster.

Read the rest On Huffington Post UK.

My Europe Day speech

I was honoured to speak at the European Movement’s Europe Day celebrations on the 9th of May 2018 alongside Lucy Anderson MEP, Stephen Dorrell, Brendan Donnelly, Jean Lambert MEP, Femi Oluwole and John Stevens. This is the full text of my speech. 

I am here today as a member of the3Million, a grassroots organisation set up by volunteers in the aftermath of the referendum aiming to protect all the existing rights of millions of citizens who made this country their home thanks to freedom of movement. Some of what I will say is in a personal capacity, as the organisation does not take a stance pro or against Brexit per se, but focuses on protecting citizenship rights under all scenarios.

This is a day of celebration and I want to give you the positive side of the story, and reasons for hope. But first a bit of background. Our key activity right now is campaigning for clarity on the government’s proposed settled status, a registration process for more than 3 million citizens. We believe there are major, worrying issues with it, and our lawyers in fact have compiled 150 questions to the government which we are waiting an answer for.

As of today, I can announce here that we are in fact stepping our campaigning up a gear, planning to take the government to court over a clause that was passed today in the data protection bill which strips foreign citizens of the right to access data held by government departments, including the Home Office, making it impossible to challenge any decision it takes, and which risks making the appalling Windrush scandal look like a walk in the park compared to what is coming our way. Please check our twitter feed for info on how to support our legal challenge fund.

But on this Europe Day celebration, let’s talk about what we love about the EU.

Firstly a bit about my story, plus some other ideas I crowdsourced from our 30K strong online forum. People mentioned a variety of pieces of EU legislation on the environment and consumer protection, but overwhelmingly they talked about the wonders of freedom of movement as a key achievement of the EU.

I have worked in 3 different EU countries and all without major paperwork. The opposite was true when I attempted to get sponsored for a work visa in the US. It was complicated and upsetting, so my British husband and I decided to give up – why should we bother, when we have 28 countries to chose from where neither of us needs a work visa?

In fact after that I immediately got a high profile UK campaigning job, and I remember feeling amazed about the fact I was working with UK MPs and debating the need for a new Climate Change Act with them all over the country, and they were – rightly – treating me as entirely equal to other British campaigners, even though technically I was not even a British voter.

When I went to Brussels, I would work with politicians from all over the EU and they did not seem to care which country I was from. Thanks to EU law, I was in fact able to chose to vote for British MEPs rather than Italian candidates, which in the absence of a vote in national elections gave me a better sense of belonging to this country and the confidence of being a politician’s treasured constituent. The European Parliament has been in fact leading a fight to protect the rights of the3Million as well as the British in Europe, so thanks to the MEPs who are here today.

Since I first arrived in the UK in 1996, I’ve changed jobs many times, and then set up my own pan-European consultancy business, mostly with no sign of discrimination or difference in treatment based on my accent or nationality.

Up to 2016, this really was the land of opportunity for many people. And no, I am not a particularly privileged person and I know plenty of people from working class background –who are taking advantage of this freedom.

In a similar way, British people have been moving across the EU and settling in other countries, contributing to the local economy. Far from just the stereotypical pensioners in Costa del Sol, they are largely of working age, and contributing greatly to the culture and economic life of their host countries through their businesses and jobs.

AS a fellow Italian said on the3Million forum, one of the best things about the EU is “the understanding that there is a core set of rights which has to be respected in any EU country, that each citizen is to be treated on the same terms of their fellow residents, obeying the same rules, having access to the same opportunities and contributing to the cohesion of society to the same degree.”

Of course we all know that the EU has made peace possible on this once war torn continent.

When I think of it properly, I still find it shocking to think that that Britons and Italians of my grandfather’s generation fought each other in the Second World War. Yet here we are, living and working in peace in each others’ countries, becoming neighbours and friends and colleagues and partners, having children with dual nationalities and the ability to speak two or more languages. And running businesses across boundaries with great ease.

But one thing that is rarely talked about is how freedom of movement has in itself been crucial for keeping the peace in Europe. You know about the importance of freedom of movement for peace in Northern Ireland. But do you know this freedom to move around has brought peace to other parts of Europe? In the North east of Italy there is a German speaking minority. When I was a child I remember hearing stories of bombs planted by people who wanted to leave Italy and hated Italians. Guess what, now those fellow citizens have freedom to work and move across the border with Austria and now this is one of the most peaceful and prosperous parts of Italy, a magnet for walkers and skiers from across the world.

Also on our forum, a person said: “Growing up in western Poland I remember having to queue for border checks as a child just for a day trip to Germany, and since Poland joined the EU it never ceased to give me that little tingle of joy going over the German border and having to look out for a sign that said “Germany” or else you’d miss it completely. I met so many fantastic people from across Europe when I moved to the UK (not to mention meeting my other half, who is Welsh) and I think every young person should have this opportunity, as it really expands your mind.”

And ultimately let’s not forget that a lot of EU countries were until not so long ago struggling with undemocratic hostile regimes, from Spain and Portugal in the west to the communist block in the east.

The closeness these countries have now achieved within a few decades and the integration and freedom of movement between them – whether through young people doing erasmus programmes, or workers enjoying reciprocal rights to access the job market, or tourists accessing each other’s health services in emergencies through the EHIC card – is simply amazing. There is no need to talk about the 2nd world war to make this point, this is far more recent.

But let’s be clear, freedom of movement is not perfect. No, it’s not about the mulch talked about “legitimate concerns” about too much immigration. Those were – I am sorry to say – fuelled by politicians playing with people’s fears rather than addressing their real causes. And to some level these fears have been stoked up by some perhaps well meaning people, including some remainers who perhaps inadvertently keep feeding myths about freedom of movement when they talk about renegotiating free movement with the EU in order to prevent a hard Brexit, with emergency brakes, etc. This is unrealistic at this stage, and in addition, if there is no real evidence of any problems caused by immigration, and in fact many EU nationals are actually leaving the UK now, why bring this up at all?

That sounds depressing and on this Europe Day celebration I am not meant to do that. But the good news is that there is something we can all do something about that.

Just like we learnt the EU referendum could not be won with a half-hearted, almost embarassed approach to arguing for remaining in the EU – while constantly apologising about its faults, the same is true for freedom of movement.

Please, while you campaign to remain in the EU, consider that you will not succeed unless you have the courage to challenge the lies about immigration. Actually I’ll go further, you will not manage unless you are prepared to speak positively about freedom of movement. Guess what? It is in the name of taking away the rights of EU citizens living here that the UK government is trying to persue a type of Brexit that will kill British people’s own freedom of movement.

But Freedom of movement is not the same as old fashioned immigration. It is a freedom that is reciprocal, it is the choice that countries have made, freely, to give each other’s citizens reciprocal citizenship rights and the choice to not discriminate against them on the basis of nationality, to treat them like equals. This should be celebrated and not talked about as a necessary evil, needed just in order to get a trade deal. It is a fundamental part of human progress in this continent and a model for the rest of the world about what citizenship rights are and how they can evolve.

Celebrating this should be easy. Far from being a burden, EU nationals in the UK are in fact an asset. Their influx has been a sign of this country’s success – but I don’t hear enough people with the courage to say this. It is a fact that non British EU citizens are more likely to be working than on benefits compared to the average British citizen, and are more likely to be propping up public services as doctors, nurses or teachers than causing queues for those services. And there is no evidence of a reduction of wages caused by immigration. Honestly, that is nonsense and shame on some supposedly progressive politicians and commentators for periodically fanning the flames of xenophobia with these myths.

And finally if you campaign for a People’s Vote, which seems like a good idea, please ask for 3.6 million Europeans to get the vote this time. Unlike Commonwealth citizens, EU27 nationals (and British in Europe, in fact) were despicably denied a say in 2016 on something that would fundamentally alter their lives.

Is this what British values are about? Voting to take away the rights of a minority without even giving them a vote? What would people say if there was a referendum on abortion that excluded women or a vote on gay rights that excluded gays? Surely that would be considered unacceptable in a modern democracy.

So on this Europe Day of celebrations I say – don’t just assume that stopping Brexit will stop the Hostile Environment and the slide of this country into an intolerant and racist backward looking place – in fact it quite possible that foreigners will continue being subjected to a tide of hatred under any kind of scenario. So let’s all be far more proactive in standing against lies on immigration, as well as for the rights of EU nationals and more broadly for freedom of movement.

Let’s campaign to give everybody a fair say in the future of the country we all call home, so that we can better protect ourselves and work together to explore the true meaning of what it means to be British AND European.





Is the EU stopping the UK from protecting citizens’ rights?

According to The Daily Telegraph, the EU is stopping an early deal on citizens’ rights in Brexit negotiations, a line repeated in other UK newspapers. This is what Amber Rudd said on May 2nd, on the Today Programme, adding that the EU should also give this issue the same priority the UK government is giving it. Clearly, a well established “line” the UK government has decided to take.

This is also a similar line that was given to many EU nationals in the UK (and their British friends and family members) when they contacted some MPs to express concern and anxiety since the referendum  – that Theresa May had tried but Merkel had disagreed to an early deal. Yet, this would have been impossible before article 50 anyway, and it was never clear precisely WHAT May had offered Merkel.

According to this line, it is the EU’s fault that 9 months after the referendum –  in which it was the UK that decided to leave the EU – three million or so EU citizens in the UK and more than one million British in the EU have no idea if they will retain all their rights (including right to work, to health care, pensions, etc) after Brexit happens in 2019. It is causing major anxiety to entire families, including children and old people. There are numerous reports – on the3Million‘s 30K+ strong discussion forum – that some EU nationals are being asked unusual questions at job interviews because of uncertainty and confusion over their residency status.

But is it correct to say it’s the EU’s fault?

No. The government has had plenty of chances to guarantee EU nationals unilaterally before triggering Article 50, including during the debate on the Brexit Bill.  This would have avoided major anxiety for millions of people, and it would have set the negotiations with the EU-27 on a much better footing. Yet MPs voted down a simple amendment which would have guaranteed EU nationals’ rights. The argument used was that this would be against the interests of British citizens in the EU. However, organisations representing British citizens in the EU were actually supporting this unilateral guarantee – because it is the right thing to do, and because they knew it would have protected them better.

Also, EU negotiators DID put the issue of citizens’ rights quite clearly as the first item in the negotiations. How do I know? I was there – with a delegation of the3Million and British in Europe citizens – meeting chief EU Commission negotiator immediately before he announced that citizens’ rights were to be the top priority in the negotiations. This was the day before the UK triggered article 50, and it was clear EU institutions want to protect all 4.5 million expats, including the British in Europe.

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And by protection, the EU means protecting all existing rights, not just some. Including their right to bring family members over e.g. elderly parents – and this is currently possible for British in Europe as well as Europeans in the UK.

Note that this concept of the indivisibility of rights is not being imposed by the EU – it also clearly supported by a House of Lords committee report. This report, together with a later one by the House of Commons committee on leaving the EU, had also recommended a unilateral UK guarantee of EU nationals’ rights before triggering article 50.

A dog’s dinner

But never mind the past. The EU now EU apparently has a draft agreement ready for the UK to sign, although the UK may not be ready – this may have something to do with the EU’s position that the European Court of Justice should have oversight on the protection of citizens’ rights. Not ideal, but this is entirely solvable with good will. Note that the oversight of the ECJ may well be impossible for the UK to get out of, e.g. it it wants to be part of the internal energy market, which is clearly a sensible thing to do that the entire business sector will need and ask for. But there are other options for international arbitration, such as the EFTA court. The potential options will become clearer over time, as negotiations move on to other issues  – and it would be real disaster if this issue were to get mixed up with the issue of 4.5 million people’s citizenship rights.

And then there is another worry.

The much talked about article that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung on Sunday April 30th about Theresa May’s dinner with Jean Claude Juncker, included something worrying on what the UK government may have in mind for an early deal on EU citizens’ rights. 

Here is what the relevant bit says:

“May had idiosyncratic ideas about how the talks should progress. First thing, she wants to clarify the rights of the three Million Europeans in the UK, and the one million Brits on the continent. That suits well, since it is also the first priority for the EU. She suggested to get this topic out of the way at the End of June, at the next European Council. Her visitors were astonished: just two weeks after the election?

Not a problem for May, the EU citizens shall/should simply be treated like Third-state citizens under british law. For Juncker, a big problem: after all, now they are enjoying many additional rights and those should be preserved as far as possible. That involves solving difficult Problems, not only in terms of residency.”

Well, so the early deal the UK says is being blocked by the EU would have involved turning EU nationals in the UK into third country citizens.  I am not assuming this is correct, nor that it is as alarming as it sounds – another explanation is that Theresa May had not been correctly briefed by her advisers or that the German journalist misinterpreted something. But this is clear: UK immigration law for third country citizens could – if used to deal with EU nationals at the stroke of a pen  – effectively make it impossible for most EU nationals in the UK to continue their lives as normal. What EU citizens need, instead, is clear measures to reassure them rapidly, and to ensure they can get on with their lives as normal without fears of losing rights that they assumed would be theirs for the rest of their lives.

EU citizens in the UK (and EU negotiators) also have reasons to be concerned about such proposals, given the worrying treatment EU citizens are receiving by the Home Office, which is currently rejecting 30% of applications for permanent residency. The Home Office has stopped sending the well publicised (and legally invalid) letters asking EU citizens who had been rejected to prepare to leave the country. However, this high rate of rejection is stopping thousands of eligible people from even applying (regardless of Brexit negotiations, getting this PR card is currently a requirement for British citizenship, which many are applying for, as it feels by far the safest protection against future retroactive changes, as well as giving the right to vote in national elections and of course being a way to be fully and more formally part of British society).

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Lack of guarantees by UK government is causing anxiety, including amongst the elderly

How can this be solved? 

I am not trying to suggest that these matters cannot be solved. Quite the opposite. What is needed is goodwill. When there is a will, there is a way. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • UK government should immediately show good will in the negotiations and reassure EU nationals FOR REAL by abolishing the current Home Office based system to acquire permanent residency, which is also highly discriminatory and often based on incorrect interpretation of EU law;
  • this should rapidly be replaced by a simple and cheap way for 3 million people established here to continue to enjoy the same rights as before including health care/pensions etc., made available through a simple, inexpensive registration process and path to citizenship;
  • of course the EU negotiating position is not perfect either. the3Million and British in Europe have been asking the UK and the EU-27 to ensure that any deal on citizens’ rights is ring-fenced from the negotiations, so it would stand in case the negotiations fail or are delayed. This is entirely feasible from a legal standpoint (ignore the misleading headline on this link).

[please note this blog does not necessarily represent the official position of the3Million, as I have written it in a personal capacity]