On 1 February 2020, João Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese diplomat, took office in the role that was created for him. There had never been an EU ambassador to the UK, because there was no need for one. After Brexit Day, this all changed. The EU has delegations in all countries that are not members of the bloc, such as Turkey and Canada; the UK is no (longer) different. As such, Vale de Almeida now sits in his rebranded West London office, which used to be the home of the EU Representation in the UK.
Until last year, he was EU ambassador to the United Nations in New York, in addition to having served as ambassador to the United States between 2010 and 2015. During his time in Washington, he helped launch trade talks between the EU and the US, and gained significant recognition for his achievements as a skillful and experienced diplomat.
Similarly to Boris Johnson, Vale de Almeida started his career as a journalist. It comes as no surprise, then, that he and Mr. Johnson have known each other since before they both moved to politics, when Mr. Johnson was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph. His link with the PM is another reason why it is him, and not anyone else, who has been put in charge of the monumental task as ambassador: to ensure the withdrawal agreement runs smoothly, and both parties hold up their end of the bargain.
The UK is to set up an independent monitoring authority to oversee EU citizens’ rights by 1 January 2021, the day the transitional period after Brexit ends. It will monitor an array of issues, including the EU Settlement Scheme, social welfare and employment rights. Vale de Almeida’s office will be complementing this service. He acknowledged that it is Brussels’ and the UK’s joint responsibility to ensure that all EU citizens obtain status under the Settlement Scheme (EUSS), and plans to increase the outreach tools in order to reach “deeper into the British society” to ensure everyone knows their rights.
At Seraphus, we have first-hand experience with these groups of vulnerable people, as we have been delivering workshops and information sessions about the EUSS to EU citizens across the country since the Home Office rolled out the Scheme in 2019. Christopher Desira, Seraphus’ director and founding solicitor, explains: “There are so many barriers for people to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. It could be language, or education. It could be physical or mental health issues, dependency issues, street homelessness, living in precarious residence accommodation, or a combination of a number of those.
For example, we gave a workshop to an East Timorese community in Northern Ireland. These are East Timorese citizens who have acquired Portuguese nationality. Many of them do not speak English, or at least not very well. They do not get the connection between Brexit and their free movements rights ending; they just know now that their Portuguese passport means they can live and work anywhere in the UK. They don’t know or understand that Brexit affects that. They were lucky that someone in their community who made an effort to bring all these people together in a room, invite us to attend, and function as an interpreter. He is a real community champion. If it was not for that person, that community would have no knowledge of the scheme whatsoever.”
Needless to say, the more issues an individual has, the harder it is to reach them and the harder it will be to ensure those people apply without any legal assistance. This is where many external organisations, ranging from charities such as the3million or Settled, to law firms such as Seraphus, come in to reach more people in meaningful ways. Vale de Almeida has said he will specifically help vulnerable EU nationals, such as Roma people, the elderly, prisoners, or people with little knowledge of English, to stay in Britain. We hope to make good on his promise.