If you’ve got a question about Brexit, who you gonna call?
Perhaps the Europe Direct Contact Center (EDCC), the EU’s citizen information service, which has experienced a surge in popularity amid growing anxiety over Brexit.
In the first three months of this year, the EDCC fielded as many Brexit-related questions as they received in all of 2018, according to Jens Mester of the European Commission’s communication department, which oversees the center.
The uncertainty surrounding the U.K.’s planned departure from the EU — with no consensus in the House of Commons on how or when Britain should leave — has many citizens from across the EU seeking urgent advice.
Last year, 109,000 EU citizens contacted the EDCC by phone and mail, with an average of around 200 calls a day. When POLITICO visited the EDCC’s Brussels headquarters on a recent afternoon, two hours before the center closed shop, a display tallied 204 calls taken for the day.
“People call frantically, panicking sometimes,” said Martina Micallef, a communications officer. “We do our best to keep them calm.”
Questions cover a wide range of subjects. Some callers from the U.K. ring to say, for example, “that on April 12, they’ll be in Spain,” said Micallef, and “they want to know whether they’ll be allowed back in.” The U.K. has to decide whether to take part in the European election by April 12, or face crashing out without a deal on that date.
Non-British EU citizens have Brexit questions too. Micallef, who takes calls in English and Maltese, said that many Maltese students in the U.K. called to ask whether they would be allowed to stay, and under what conditions.
Others call to discuss more philosophical issues: Roisin O’Neill, who speaks Irish and English, said a Brit asked her whether they could just keep their European citizenship in a personal capacity, despite Brexit.
Besides citizens’ rights, “the other big issue is pets,” Micallef said. Questions such as whether the family cat can be brought to the Continent post Brexit can be tricky to answer. “With pets, it’s always complicated,” she added. “With Brexit, even more so.”
Occasionally, there are more indignant queries: From Germany, “we get a lot of complaints about the [Brexit] process” — which to some seems “to take too much time and lack efficiency,” Micallef said.
Other questions the center has fielded include what issues British kids on a school trip in Europe might face on Brexit day, whether it’s possible to get German citizenship by moving there just before the U.K. leaves the bloc, and on what date Brexit is actually happening.
Yet the EDCC does not have all the answers, let alone a crystal ball to predict what London’s next move will be. The best they can do is to “translate for citizens” the latest EU information, said Maria Tyrni, who trains the crew.
The EDCC is more than a Brexit hotline, even though according to Micallef, Brexit calls do have “priority” at the moment. The center will try their best to answer citizens’ questions on any EU-related subject, in any of the bloc’s 24 official languages.
Working at the center, O’Neill said, “is a masterclass in how the EU works in very practical terms for citizens.”
Over the past few weeks, other hot topics have included questions about the EU’s new copyright rules, and Article 13 in particular, about student exchange program Erasmus+ and about the free Interrail scheme for young Europeans — with one grandmother calling to find out what she needed to do to send her grandkids to discover Europe.
The next round of the EU’s WiFi4EU program, which will see municipalities equipped with free wireless internet, kicked off on Thursday, also sparking a series of calls.
And with the European election just around the corner, people have started to inquire about how to vote, especially those living in another EU country, said communication department head Mester.
Citizens with questions can dial 00 800 67891011 to reach the center. The number is free to call from anywhere in the EU.