After Johnson’s victory, post-Brexit citizens’ rights at stake
Sunday, 15 December 2019
The general elections last Thursday in United Kingdom resulted in the Conservatives gaining a solid majority in the House of Commons.
An orderly Brexit, based on the deal agreed with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the European Council Summit in Brussels in October will take place by 31 January next year.
“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” a jubilant Johnson said on Friday morning, after having suffered so many defeats in the British parliament.
Ahead of the elections, Brussels and London based NGO New Europeans came to Brussels Press Club to present its citizens manifesto and campaign for free movement rights to British citizens in EU27 and protection of EU citizens in UK from discrimination.
“Whatever the outcome of the election, we’ll be able to say that our call for a Green Card has been heard on both sides of the Channel and that we expect work to start on seeking a way forward immediately the new government is in place,” said Roger Casale, the founder and CEO of New Europeans.
By Green Card, he was referring to a call for a physical proof of status in the form of an EU Green Card to safeguard free movement rights.
The other calls include guarantees of rights anchored in primary legislation in UK and EU27, simplification of the cumbersome EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) for registration of permanent resident status, voting rates in local elections to be retained, and the right to obtain citizenship and therefore to vote in all elections.
The UK elections last week were dominated by economic issues and the overall question of getting Brexit done or not. Before the Brexit deal, or the Withdrawal Agreement, finally was agreed, the biggest stumbling block was the Irish issue or the so-called backstop.
Other issues such as citizens and residence rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in EU27 were more easily resolved or so it was claimed. Following the Brexit referendum in 2016, the 3.4 million EU citizens in UK and the up to 1.6 million UK citizens in EU27 were living in uncertainty and a kind of legal limbo, not knowing what their status would be after Brexit.
In the months leading up to the final Brexit deal, EU´s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who was reappointed last week to lead the next round of Brexit talks for the EU, kept reassuring that EU “wants the agreement to protect the rights of the 4.5 million European citizens in the UK and British citizens in the 27 Member States”.
Judging from the text in the Withdrawal Agreement, the issue concerning residence status is well covered but might be difficult to understand and much depends on how the legislation will be implemented by UK and the EU member states.
EU citizens and UK nationals, and their respective family members, who have resided legally in the host state in accordance with Union law for a continuous period of 5 years shall have the right to reside permanently in the host state under certain conditions. They can apply for residence status, subject to certain conditions, until the end of the transition period (31 December 2020 unless extended).
During the transition period, EU citizens or UK nationals residing on the basis of the agreement in the territory of the host state shall enjoy equal treatment with the nationals of that state within the scope of the agreement.
Do EU citizens in UK and British citizens in EU27 still have reason to worry? At least there still seems to be uncertainty about voting rights and the right to freedom of movement, fundamental rights in the EU.
At the event in Brussels, Else Kvist, a Danish citizen living with her family in the UK, told the story of how she had her vote denied in the European Parliamentary elections in May. Up to 20 % of EU citizens are believed to share her experience of disenfranchisement because of misleading information by the British authorities.
Dr Michaela Benson spoke about the experience of UK citizens resident in the EU, based on interviews of 600 people. Most of them feel that they are not heard and are facing bureaucratic problems in regulating their status. She describes the phenomena as “bordering”, a process which reconfigures European belongings and separates those who do not deserve citizen rights.
Kate Willoughby playing suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.
The centre piece of the event was the performance of actor Kate Willoughby who played the role of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who more than 100 years ago fought for the right of women to vote in elections in the UK, a right which was only fully recognised in 1928.
In her Courage Calls! Speech, Willoughby travelled through space and time to deliver a passionate message that the votes of citizens count. Like women in the past were denied their voting rights, citizens today risk of being treated as second class citizens and denied their right after Brexit. “Courage calls to courage everywhere and its voice cannot be denied.”
Asked by The Brussels Times about what went wrong concerning citizen rights in the Brexit negotiations, Casale replied that the issue became hostage to the budget talks on UKs payments to the EU after Brexit. “The EU could have done better. Instead of levelling up rights, the whole process was to level them down. To take away rights is a human rights issue.”