The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, formally began the process of the UK leaving the European Union by triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union on 29 March 2017. A two year period of complex negotiations is underway involving the EU (of 27 States) and the UK government.
The future is uncertain for us all and concerns about the place given to the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland during negotiations are exacerbated by the current political situation here. Despite assurances by UK, Irish and EU leaders about the importance of the ongoing Peace and Reconciliation process and the rights enshrined in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, fears of the impact of a hard Brexit have brought renewed calls for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights.
Finding ways for people directly affected by the changes, including older people, to be informed and involved in shaping future arrangements, will be a challenge. We know from talking to older people that they are concerned about creating a better future for their grandchildren and for us all as we age.
It is too early for a full or accurate assessment of the likely impact of Brexit on older people but it is vital that the rights of older people currently enjoyed under EU law are protected and strengthened. The EU human rights, equality and anti-discrimination safeguards have had a positive impact on the lives of older people in Northern Ireland. Indeed much of Northern Ireland's equality legislation derives from the European Union. We need to ensure that these rights are not lost or weakened in any new arrangements and age discrimination protections are strengthened for older people around access to goods, facilities and services.
There are a number of issues for consideration as negotiations begin:
- Provision of health and social care services – the impact on services that rely heavily on workers from EU countries; delivery of cross border specialist health services, for example child heart surgery services in Dublin and cardiology services in Altnagelvin; ensuring cross-European prevention and control of communicable diseases; medical research; regulation and access to medicines; reciprocal access to healthcare e.g. currently via the EHIC medical card.
- Pensions – for older people living in EU countries and for EU citizens living in the UK. We need to ensure that pensioners, wherever they live, are not adversely affected and that pension rights that currently exist are maintained post Brexit. The state pension needs to be at least maintained and pension guarantees kept in place. Consideration should also be given to extending these rights to current EU workers living and working in the UK, so that those who earn state pensions receive them from the UK government. UK citizens and those working or living in the EU should be afforded the same protections and level of pensions as citizens of those member countries and UK and EU citizens should be able to transfer and/or access their pension funds from across their different pension funds in the EU.
- Right to family reunification, for example, should an older person from an EU country wish to come and live with their relatives living and working in Northern Ireland.
- Implications for financial services, consumer law or energy provision, while unclear at this stage, are likely to have a profound impact on quality of life, the economy and our rights.
- The particular circumstances of older people and families living along the border counties, including freedom of movement and access to employment and social security.
Age NI's priority in the coming months and years will be to ensure a better later life for everyone, no matter where they live - and we will work with alongside older people and all other stakeholders to ensure that in the final post Brexit analysis, that there has been no diminution or weakening of older people's rights.