“The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief, We must suffer them all again”
W.H.Auden, from the poem 1st September 1939
The plight of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in Europe is well documented, but what is not often recognised is that this is set to continue long after the bells of Big Ben fail to chime in Britain’s Brexit moment at midnight on 31 January.
Despite the Withdrawal Agreement – which through the introduction of the EU settlement scheme (EUSS) mitigates some of the worst fears of ‘the 5 million’ (3.6 m EU citizens in Britain and 1.4m UK citizens in the EU) – the next phase of EU-UK negotiations is likely to see a return to treating citizens as ‘bargaining chips’.
After Britain leaves, it will have to negotiate its future relationship with the EU. There is still so much unfinished business in relation to citizens’ rights that inevitably will be caught up in those negotiations. This includes the matter of whether the voting rights of the 5 million will be maintained or denied post Brexit.
While the UK sees the EU as a trading block, the EU sees itself as ‘a community of values’. From the EU side, those values are spelt out in the preamble to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and include respect for human dignity.
We have very little idea from this British Prime Minister as to what values he actually does hold and It’s not clear that any such statement would be trustworthy.
What is certain is that there will continue to be a clash of cultures between the EU and the UK when it comes to negotiations. The 5 million will still be caught up in that and the negotiations are likely to cause uncertainty and anxiety for many years to come.
It is impossible to claim that you are respecting people’s dignity if you treat them as negotiating collateral, in other words as bargaining chips.
That is why the EU should grant unilateral rights guarantees to all British citizens currently resident in the EU. The EU has this within its gift, even if it has not yet written it into Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate.
Such a step would not only be the right thing to do, it would also be to the lasting credit of the EU’s reputation. It would demonstrate to the world that the EU is a safe space for human rights and that life choices based on exercising those rights are protected.
Instead what is going to happen is that the UK government will use anxiety around the long-term future of 3.6m EU citizens in the UK as leverage in the negotiations over the future trading relationship it will have with the EU.
This means that the many shortcomings of the EU settlement scheme, for example the need to update your records every time you change address or phone number or potentially risk losing your rights to UK residence, can be addressed.
The biggest problem of all with the EUSS is that it is not declaratory in nature but rather a new status for which EU citizens have to apply, even though they have this status already.
Those who fail to do so for whatever reason have been threatened with deportation by a government minister. They are likely to be the elderly, the infirm and those who are otherwise at risk in our communities. The Windrush scandal in 2018, when a number of people were wrongly detained and, in some cases, deported, is a reminder that the government carries out such threats.
Similarly, many British citizens in France for example who may not fulfil the criteria yet to secure a carte de sejour (residence permit) may be about to fall through the cracks even of the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement. They may lack a sufficient income or the necessary private insurance to be able to stay even as the UK leaves the EU with a deal in place.
Leveraging anxiety is exactly how the UK government behaved during the first phase of the negotiations. The perception at the time was that there had to be “reciprocal” arrangements or in other words some trade-offs between the position of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU.
No such trade-offs were made, nor was there ever any prospect that they would be made. Firstly, it was, is and probably always will be a matter of indifference to successive UK governments, Conservative and Labour, what happens to British citizens living in the EU.
There is nothing the EU could have offered the UK government to protect Britons in the EU post Brexit that would have persuaded the UK government to give anything in return.
Secondly, no such trade-offs were possible because the situation of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU are asymmetric. EU citizens in the UK will still be EU citizens post Brexit, just no longer living in an EU member state – for Britons in the EU, the reverse is true.
The real trade-off for the UK government during the negotiations was between the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the divorce bill, the amount the UK must pay to leave the EU. As soon as the divorce bill was within politically acceptable boundaries (£39bn as opposed to £60bn), the UK government granted settled status unilaterally.
Britons in Europe have been left with very little in return, apart from the opportunity to stay living where they are – a concession they would have obtained from their host member state whether or not there had been a Withdrawal Agreement.
When negotiations over the future relationship begin, the UK and the EU will still face a long list of unmet demands from ‘the 5 million’ despite the roll out of settled status. Top of the list for Britons in the EU will be the right to move freely within the territory of the EU. EU citizens in the UK will need a physical proof of status.
One way to do this, would be to issue an #EUGreenCard to all British citizens resident in an EU member state, guaranteeing the same rights they currently enjoy as proposed by New Europeans, the campaign group I founded in 2013 to campaign for citizens’ rights.
Such a card could also be given to EU citizens in the UK as a physical document. Without this, they will continue to face discrimination on the grounds of a misperception – by a landlord or potential employer for example – that their residency status is uncertain.
Until such solutions are found, EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU will remain in limbo, always in the news, but never in a position where their lives return to normal. That this should be happening in twenty-first century in Europe is unacceptable.
But as the poet Auden reminds us, human nature is a constant.
New Europeans is now working with a group of actors who perform and campaign politically as suffragettes. The parallels between the suffragette movement and the fight for citizens’ rights post Brexit is very close.
Neither EU citizens in the UK nor Britons in Europe want to be treated as second class citizens post Brexit. Like the suffragettes, there is a real danger that the 5 million will be left not only without their prior status, but even without a vote and without a voice.
That is why as well as an #EUGreenCard New Europeans is calling for EU citizens in the UK to be given the right to vote in General Elections and for the 15-year rule which disenfranchises Britons from UK elections after 15 years residence abroad should be abolished.
As Millicent Fawcett, the suffragette whose statue stands in Parliament Square in London said of her sister suffragette Emily Davison:
“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and is voice cannot be denied”.
Let that be the rallying cry of the 5 million.
We must have the courage to stand together and to demand that those in power listen and then do the right thing. It will take time but in the end we will succeed and when we do, we will know that it is because we had the courage to take action and stand up for our rights.