Robyn Vinter 14th April 2019
MEPs and their staff are suffering from “Brexititis” — stress-induced illness caused by delays, extensions and not knowing when their jobs will finish.
This week, the EU granted Britain a Brexit extension until 31 October to get its house in order, after MPs in British Parliament repeatedly rejected prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
MEPs had been told to hand in their EU passes, voting cards and any parliament equipment and they needed to clear their offices in Brussels and Strasbourg before the original Brexit date of 29 March.
A similar process happened again before the second deadline of 12 April, with MEPs being given just two days’ notice that they were expected to continue in their roles.
“We’re all either kind of crawling along with physical ailments, or have bad backs, or are not sleeping great,” said Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling, who was on antibiotics for a chest infection when The Overtake spoke to her this week.
“This level of uncertainty is just not healthy long term,” she added.
Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP, said Brits in the European Parliament had dubbed it “Brexititis”.
She said: “Basically, if you imagine the worst thing to your health, it’s having an awful lot of pressure put on you, not being in control of your work or your life, and not having any idea of when that’s going to come to an end. I mean, that would probably be the worst thing to do for somebody’s psychological health. That’s the situation we’re all in, really.”
Dr Charles Tannock, a Conservative MEP who is also a medical doctor, said his health has also been impacted.
“If anything, my immune system has been damaged by all the stress because I certainly have more coughs and colds and other minor ailments, which is unusual. That’s because I’ve been run down and stressed out by it all.
“Inevitably, chronic stress, we all know from all the research, is pretty bad for your immune system.
“Most things that are stressful are temporary and short-lived, but this is something that’s gone on for three years with no obvious end in sight.”
I think that the human dimension has been rather lost on a lot of people
He added that it was made all the more difficult because very few MEPs and advisors wanted to leave the EU.
“I think that the human dimension has been rather lost on a lot of people, and it has been a very tough time. And it’s particularly tough for people like me who believe in Britain being a member [of the EU].”
British staff, who were told they needed to leave before 29 March, have given up their homes in Brussels and packed their belongings. Many of them are now living in temporary accommodation like Airbnbs and, because of the short notice, some are even sleeping on sofas and at friends’ homes.
“It just feels like there’s a welfare dimension, which is not something which will gather massive public sympathy. But it would be really nice if it was acknowledged somewhere,” Kirton-Darling said.
One adviser to a British MEP said they had everything packed up and then found out from the news just days before they were due to leave for the UK that they would be saying in Brussels.
The assistants work incredibly hard at times of real, real pressure
Working for an MEP is already a stressful job without the added pressure of the uncertainty, said Scott Cato, who represents the South West.
“We have absolutely brilliant advisors, but there are times when they’re just not able to sleep at all. They just work all night, and it’s just really killing when there’s a lot of legislation coming along. I work a lot, but the assistants work incredibly hard at times of real, real pressure,” she added.
The European Parliament divides up MEPs’ expenses by giving them a €4,000 allowance to cover staff and office costs. This means advisors are not employed by the European Parliament but by the MEP themselves.
Many MEPs had never made staff redundant before, and the matter is complicated further by handing out redundancies and then re-employing staff on a temporary contract.
We’ve had absolutely no support at all
“I’ve done my best, and I’ve been advised by good people. It’s just me on my end struggling with that, and we’ve had absolutely no support at all.
“It’s been just appalling,” said Scott Cato.
British government “hypocritical”
MEPs suggested it was hypocritical of the British government to put MEPs through a level of uncertainty that MPs would not tolerate.
Kirton-Darling said: “I’m really struck that if it was the equivalent in Westminster, there would actually be a lot of discussion about the welfare of MPs.
“I was listening to the BBC Brexitcast, where they were talking with a remain MP and a leave MP about the emotional impact and the psychological pressure of the last few weeks and all the Brexit discussion. We’ve been in that now for two-and-a-half years.
“There’s no consideration of that at all or the impact that it has on our staff.”
If there was a prospect that we were going to lose 50 MPs, or whatever, there would be a whole agenda of managing the personal impact of it
The MEP for the North East added that Westminster has a responsibility to British staff — who are mostly young people — working in Brussels.
“What has been really striking has been the lack of pastoral care,” she said.
“If there were boundary changes and the prospect that we were going to lose 50 MPs, or whatever, there would be a whole agenda of managing that change and the personal impact of it.”
The government told The Overtake the welfare of MEPs and their staff wasn’t its responsibility.
Robyn Vinter 14th April 2019