Britain's Black Belt in EU Law Says She Can't Fight Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- A karate black belt and a decade’s worth of experience poring over European Union law may not be enough to help one of Britain’s top EU officials fight her way out of Brexit limbo.

Even though Eleanor Sharpston, one of a handful of legal advisers to the bloc’s highest court, makes her living giving opinions on big cases, she admits to being in the dark about whether she’ll be able to keep her job once Brexit kicks in next year.

While Britain’s two judges at the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the EU seem likely to be turfed out, Sharpston’s position is more nuanced because the bloc’s treaty leaves it open whether she will have to leave her post once the U.K. has exited the EU.

“What are the conclusions that will be drawn, I suspect may be more influenced by politics than law,” Sharpston said in an interview, pointing to texts that suggest that an advocate general, her formal title, is an independent member of the Court and so may be saved from the cull.

The politicians still don’t know. EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker have even dangled the idea that Brexit is not etched in stone as both sides gear up for the start of negotiations on Britain’s future with the bloc -- a phase that leaders in Europe have said will be tougher than the initial talks on the divorce terms.

Uncertainty

In the meantime, the fate of British nationals working for the EU is unclear and may vary depending on where they work. Those on temporary contracts are already less likely to have these converted into safe, long-term deals. But, more generally, there’s an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Sharpston, 62, is one of more than a hundred Brits in Luxembourg left in limbo at EU institutions including the courts, the European Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank.

“Some are holding off applying for citizenship as they don’t want to lose money,” said Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the expat campaign group BRILL -- British Immigrants Living in Luxembourg. “The discussions among my friends who are EU officials only focus on potential salary and pension losses and the lack of future promotion rights.”

Juncker Letter

The European Commission, the EU’s executive authority in Brussels, has by far the biggest number of U.K. staff, about 900 people, including some 90 who work in the authority’s Luxembourg offices. Juncker wrote a letter to his staff the day after the Brexit vote to assure U.K. colleagues “that he will do everything in his power” to help them.

Since then “there has been continued contact between our HR department and U.K. staff on various staff-related issues linked to Brexit,” commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein said in an email.

Karate Diploma

Like many compatriots, Sharpston feels at home in Luxembourg and doesn’t move in expat circles. She speaks the local language plus French and German and has written court opinions in Spanish.

Pride of place on the wall of her court office is her black belt Shotokan karate diploma -- she trains three times a week and helps out with teaching.

While Court staff don’t publicly express their views on Brexit, it’s hard to ignore how painful the Brexit process must be for someone like Sharpston, who sees the EU as “a big success story.”

“The trouble is that the EU has been banked invisibly,” she said. For her there are so many benefits, such as slashed mobile phone roaming charges, that derive from the EU that people and many of her compatriots now “simply take as part of ordinary life.”

“I’m immensely sorry for young people who feel that this has put a shape on their future that is not what they expected,” she said.

Court Scapegoat

Seeing how her court, the highest judicial authority in the EU, has been made a scapegoat in the Brexit talks, doesn’t leave Sharpston indifferent either.

Her current term runs until 2021 and, without Brexit, she says she might have sought another one. But whether she can stay on beyond March 2019 is “not something I can influence.”

She’s one of 11 advocates general at the court. Hers is one of five permanent posts held by bigger EU nations Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. The basic role is to advise top judges before they make their final decisions and she’s tackled cases ranging from the rights of asylum seekers to the liability of airlines to compensate passengers.

She says the independence given to the advocate general also makes the job “high risk and high profile, because you’re sticking your neck out.”

“You’re saying: ‘here is this case. I think this is what the court should do with it.’ You’re not saying that politely, blandly in a document that is put in a brown envelope -- you are saying that in an opinion that’s translated into all the languages, put up on the website and becomes part of the history and the background of the case.”

If she does lose her job, at least Sharpston would have a way to vent any anger. One day, she may try out for a 2nd Dan, the next arduous step after getting a black belt.

“That would require a period of time and concentration,” she said, “and I’d need to feel I was ready.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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