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Veterans reveal post-Brexit defence dangers

Veterans for Europe highlight fears over the adverse impact of Brexit. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Three members of campaign group Veterans for Europe highlight different fears over the adverse impact of Brexit on the military.

Including the appropriation of the armed forced by the far-right, the defence dangers of leaving the EU and the devastating ay it is hitting the families of service personnel.

Steve Gavin (served with the Royal Navy from 1982 to 1990)

Every time I see a far right demonstration in the papers or on the television there is always someone out front wearing a beret and sporting a chest full of medals. Why is that? I can honestly say that since I left the ‘Mob’ I haven’t worn my beret or decorations, except occasionally for Remembrance events and my dad’s funeral.

So what enrages my old shipmates, army buddies and RAF ‘loungers’ (it’s an in-joke) so much that they get all dressed up and go and march with the Biffas (as in the Viz character Biffa Bacon. Read it. You’ll laugh)? These are the groups that have had lots of names (the British Union of Fascists, League of Empire Loyalists, British National Party, National Front, Britain First, EDL) but always amount to the same thing: they call themselves patriots and drape themselves in any flag that they can appropriate. They also like to live on the reputation of service men and women.

Their modus operandi is to find some emotive subject for which there are no easy answers, then tell people there is a group to blame and that if they can only get rid of that group then all their problems are over. And they like to imply that lots of veterans are squarely behind their rhetoric of hate and division. Well, we’re not.

The 2016 referendum brought things into focus for us oldies at Veterans for Europe. The result has helped legitimised the far right and led to a wider view that members of the Armed Forces seem ready to march down Whitehall, or elsewhere, behind Tommy – or is it Stephen? – Robinson – or is it Lennon?

But the preening guys, with their chests full of medals, who you see at these events are often the worst kind of Walts – as in Walter Mitty – who just want to feel important. Sure, there are veterans involved in the far right, but the vast majority of us would have no time for such extremists and their mantra of hate and division.

I recently attended a People’s Vote rally in the north east of England where the entire event was heckled by a small, vociferous group of so-called patriots. The MPs, community leaders and activists who spoke were all were called liars and traitors. When my turn to speak came along, I strode to the mic dressed in my Veterans for Europe T-shirt, my dolphins (Submarine Service insignia), veterans’ badge and naval beret. Yet I got exactly the same treatment from those apparently veterans-loving ‘patriots’, who called me a liar and traitor.

I asked myself what it is they think I am a traitor to, and realised that I had betrayed their perception of what I should be. The far right think I should be a hater of minorities. They want me to legitimise their victim mentality. Well I can’t and I won’t.

The core values of the Armed Forces don’t exclude people because of their race or religion.

Respect, integrity, service and excellence do not figure in the ethos of the far right, so the far right will never figure in this veteran’s life.

Stuart Thomson (served with the Royal Air Force from 1987 to 2000)

Having spent six years of my Royal Air Force career attached to the Army I picked up some very bad habits, among them, getting shot at, being shelled and getting in close proximity to IEDs. But the main lesson I learned was that war stinks and that peace is the natural goal for civilisation.

That peace is threatened by Brexit, which has put us in a desperate situation as a small country (with big ideas) choosing to potentially abandon our nearest neighbours, in an increasingly unpredictable world.

If you look west, to America and Donald Trump, you find a man who does not give a damn about the mythical, one-way ‘special relationship’. At best he sees us as the 51st state and at worst a country that no longer has any importance in the world, except as a chemical weapons testing ground for his chlorinated chicken, and the home of a health service ripe for takeover by private American companies. I have the utmost respect for the US Armed Forces but none for their commander-in-chief. Trump – an unreliable ally – is laughing at us.

Look east, to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and you find a man thrilled at the idea of Europe’s most militarily-focused, powerful country splitting from its continental allies. Until a little over two years ago Putin was a frightened little man, lashing out in the Crimea and Ukraine. The situation for him has suddenly changed as big splits appear in the West. Putin is also laughing at us.

Look to Northern Ireland, where peace now looks less secure than it did before the referendum, with dissidents exploiting the prospect of a hard border as a rallying cry.

And if you look south, to Europe, you find a continent at peace. Not something that should be taken for granted, but something that has been secured and guaranteed by the European Union. Our European allies now regard us as an unreliable partner, and as a former serviceman that makes me sick. We should be proud to lead in Europe, proud that our friends respect us and can rely on us.

Brexit is the most cowardly act this country has perpetrated. That is why the British people need the chance, in a People’s Vote, to put it right.

Duncan Hodgkins (served with the British Army from 1982 to 1992)

There is a perception among many that serving members of the Armed Forces and veterans tend to be keen advocates of Brexit. It is ironic then that those in the military (or ex-military) are among those most likely to have an EU spouse. This is due mainly to the vast numbers who have met partners while serving with the British Army of the Rhine, the Royal Air Force, in Germany, SHAPE (the NATO HQ in Belgium), or in various branches of the military in Cyprus and Gibraltar.

A straw poll during my final posting back in Germany in the early 1990s would have shown around 10% of the unit were either married to, or had girlfriends who were, European nationals.

Like all EU nationals resident in the UK, European spouses of veterans and serving military personnel have been promised they will be able to remain here under the proposed ‘settled status’ scheme.

However, this will still result in the loss of certain rights and is being implemented through secondary, rather than primary, legislation, meaning any future government can change the rules – regarding pension, NHS or benefit rights, for example – at any time and without the approval of parliament. Unsettled status would be a more apt term.

Many EU nationals are taking matters into their own hands and applying for British naturalisation. This laborious process means obtaining permanent residency (PR) status first, then taking language and ‘life in the UK’ tests, before finally applying. The total cost is close to £2,000.

However, EU military spouses are uniquely discriminated against in this process and often fall at the first hurdle. Many have spent their time as a homemaker – sometimes supporting their partners through recent military conflicts – so have not worked for five years continuously, a prerequisite for applying for PR.

Others have followed their military partners through various postings (often abroad). So while they might have worked for 20 years or more, they cannot prove five, continuous years in the UK.

Such is the uncertainty created by Brexit that military families are finding themselves in the bizarre position of, for instance, a serviceman or woman being posted to Germany, but having to leave their German partner behind in the UK for fear that they might otherwise lose their right to remain here.

As one EU spouse recently wrote to me: ‘The worst feeling is the one that having supported my husband in his roles through two wars – and there have been some hair-raising moments in that role – this country is now making me feel like it wasn’t enough.’

The unique position that EU military partners find themselves in must be recognised by our government, and time spent abroad on postings must be counted towards residency rights at the very least. Their status should also be subject to primary legislation, to guarantee their rights, rather than leave them in perpetual limbo.

These are our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues and, for some of us, our families. To have to apply to remain in your own home is the reality of ‘settled status’. It is cruel, heartless and something the government should be ashamed of.

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