The rights of EU citizens after Brexit have wrongly become the hot subject of the moment. Wrongly because it doesn’t belong to the Brexit debate and should have been settled on June 24th. But the absence of commitment at the top has left three million EU citizens in limbo with one last chance before article 50 is triggered.
On June 24th, the referendum results were sending shockwaves through the political establishment. l, like many EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe, felt sick at the feeling that my world had been turned upside down after 21 years of living in Britain.
But fairness and responsibility evaded our political elite and simple reassurances in the form of a unilateral guarantee that EU citizens could stay after Brexit never materialised. Instead, the ambiguity of the language used has helped to fuel an unprecedented rise in hate crimes towards continental Europeans and created a mass anxiety due to the uncertainty over our future in the country to which we came, in good faith, many years ago.
It’s worth remembering that the United Kingdom was previously praised across Europe as an example of tolerance and integration and its reputation has suffered greatly as a result of the recent verbal and physical violence towards EU citizens (and other minorities). My friend Sénateur Olivier Cadic told me that he asked a French audience at a public meeting in London to raise their hand if they had suffered or knew someone who had been the victim of a hate crime incident. Everyone raised their hand. I would have as well.
The story unfolding during the following months has not made for better reading. As I became more involved with the3million to defend EU citizens’ rights, I also became better informed and immigration law practitioners were all telling us the same story of hostility from the Home Office, making our future status post-Brexit even more precarious without the protection of EU Treaty rights.
While the application form became increasingly bureaucratic, going from 5 to 12 to 85 pages while Theresa May was in charge of the Home Office, the sheer inadequacy of the process means that it could take around 49 years to register all EU citizens. And unfair rules are lacing the legislation, creating needless uncertainty. For example, being married to a British citizen or having British children does not provide protection in terms of asserting one’s right for permanent residence. Similarly, ‘economically inactive’ EU citizens such as students or mothers at home who did not have the little known Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (CSI) are also refused. A Kafka-esque tale for 3 million EU citizens in the UK which could have serious human rights consequences after Brexit.
We are now probably just days away from the triggering of Article 50 and nothing has changed in terms of guarantees and assurances but EU citizens have now found a political voice through organisations such as the3million. We recently organised a mass lobby in Parliament which over 1,000 EU citizens attended with their British spouses, children, neighbours and colleagues. Many met their MPs to tell them about their personal stories and appealed to them to do the right thing when the bill returns from the Lords, hopefully with an amendment to protect the rights of all EEA and Swiss citizens living in the UK.
This is important because fairness must be restored and the 3 million EU citizens who came in good faith the UK (and the 1,2 million UK citizens in the EU) deserve to be given guarantees so they can continue with their lives.
There is a strong argument that the Government will have a stonger hand in the forthcoming negotiations if the Prime Minister were to offer a unilateral guarantee to EU citizens. Not only is the current hardline damaging Britain’s reputation on the international stage but the argument of reciprocity used to justify their position doesn’t stand the scrutiny of facts.
Firstly, all major organisations of UK citizens resident in Europe are supporting the3million in asking for unilateral guarantees, as they are 100% certain that it will leave the EU no other option but to replicate the offer as soon as article 50 is triggered (see their letter here).
Secondly, the referendum was about the UK leaving the EU but both camps agreed that EU citizens would remain in the UK after Brexit so our rights were not on the political agenda and there is absolutely no justification they can be negotiated as part of the Brexit negotiation.
Finally, there is a strong moral argument that treating people as bargaining chips is wrong and undermines the perceived legitimacy of the negotiating process.
The Brexit journey for EU citizens has been one of betrayal by their host nation so far and we can only hope that the Parliament will restore the guarantees we deserve.
Nicolas Hatton, co-chair of the3million