The Joint European Torus (JET) – Culham Centre for Fusion Energy
“Hi, my name is Xavier, I am French. Meaningless to mention my nationality, isn’t it? But in these times, I now feel obliged to.”
That’s how the 40-year-old chemical engineer introduces himself these days.
Xavier Lefebvre, who is currently employed at at the Joint European Torus’s tritium plant in Oxfordshire, has been working for 17 years. In 2009, he says, he discovered nuclear fusion and processes involving tritium, thanks to a three-year long contract with CEA (the French Atomic Energy Authority).
“This looked like a fantastic adventure to me, especially after an unforgettable one-month long stay at JET,” he explains.
At the end of his contract at CEA, in 2012, he successfully applied for his current job as a tritium plant engineer at JET, based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.
Xavier’s fiancée, Aurélie, was working as a social worker in France, and left everything behind to follow him to the UK with their son, Elliott, aged three at the time.
Aurélie decided to stay at home for a year so that she could immerse herself in British culture. She took English lessons and became a volunteer waitress at a social café, moving on to volunteer as a teaching assistant in a French class at the Europa School.
In 2014, their second child, Axel, was born in Oxford, and soon after the family bought a little house in the Oxfordshire countryside.
“All was great,” says Xavier. “We had healthy kids growing up with a caring and loving full-time mother; I had a very interesting job; a promotion with line management responsibilities; and fantastic colleagues, some of whom have become friends.
“Then the morning of 24 June broke. We had felt a bit worried while we waited to hear whether the British people had decided to leave or remain in the European Union. We were pretty confident, though, as the polls had predicted a tight victory for the remain side.
“Coffee in hand, we then had a huge shock on hearing that Brexit would happen.”
Xavier recognises that it was a democratic vote – “not the one we expected but one we would have to respect”. He points out that many “leaver” MPs and the new prime minister had also promised that the rights of people from the EU would not be in question during the withdrawal process, expected to last for least two years.
“Apparently, this promise cannot be kept and EU citizens are now being turned into bargaining chips, with threats of not being allowed back into the UK if they leave for a few days, or even worse, deportation – especially those who do not work and are not covered Comprehensive Sickness Insurance.”
Until the Brexit vote, Xavier and his fiancée had not been aware of uncertainties relating to a requirement for “economically inactive” European citizens to have this insurance – see http://bit.ly/Euro-CSI
Xavier expresses dismay at the thought that his fiancée and children could be perceived as burdens.
He says: “Do I need to point out that in my family, these ‘burdens’ are kids who might be educated in the UK, and might contribute the wealth of the country which welcomed us? Furthermore, that one of them was born here? I wish I could say ‘will’, not ‘might’ but I have never lived more uncertain times.
“Do I really need to point out that the other ‘burden’ takes care of the first two, so that I have no need to worry when I am at work?
“That this means I can work overtime at weekends or late at night; that the group I am part of can deliver projects which will contribute to my employer, the British government, maintaining its top-class UK research reputation? That this reputation can generate a significant amount of money to invest in the wellbeing of British citizens and selected EU migrants?
“Or that as my wages increase, so does the amount of tax and National Insurance I pay, contributing to the NHS and the wellbeing of people, whether British or not?”
To Xavier it seems absurd that his fiancée may not be seen as a vital part of this contribution to the wealth of the UK and faces the threat of having to leave, even though she owns a home here.
In conclusion, he says: “We have a lot of questions, very few answers and lots of uncertainties that need to be cleared up.”