Way back in January I argued that the Government should unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals and simplify the permanent residency application process. This should have been done both as a matter of principle, and as gesture of goodwill towards the EU and the millions of migrants who have contributed enormously to this country.
What a positive message it would have sent out to the country, to Europe and, indeed, the world. It was the grand gesture that could have helped to change the tone of Brexit; instead it’s now just a missed opportunity.
The counter argument was that it meant surrendering a hand in the Brexit negotiations. The logic being that that we shouldn’t protect the rights of EU nationals until the EU guaranteed reciprocation for UK nationals in Europe. I disagreed then and I disagree now. Doing the right thing isn’t conditional on anything. It was the right thing to do regardless of the EU’s intentions. It was an opportunity to change the mood of negotiations and act in good faith; the gesture would have been gratefully received and would have made the protection of the status of UK nationals more likely and led to a much quicker agreement on the issue.
Instead, it’s September and EU nationals are still living in a state of uncertainty. The Prime Minister unveiled her proposal for EU nationals back in June and called it “fair and generous”, but the offer was deemed disappointing by the EU – and rightly so. Generous would mean treating the rights they enjoy under EU Treaties as acquired, pledging to conserve them permanently, and automatically offering residency.
The major sticking point of the negotiation over EU nationals is the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The Government rejects the EU’s insistence that the ECJ should retain jurisdiction over the rights of EU citizens for the rest of their life. If, at the beginning of the process, we had unilaterally guaranteed the acquired rights of EU nationals, perhaps we could have forced a concession out of the EU. Instead, the EU’s position has become entrenched as the actions and dysfunctionality of the Home Office justifies their intransigence.
The “hostile environment” policy, the absurdly complex permanent resident application process, the nasty ‘go home’ letters and the general incompetence of the Home Office all combine to destroy any faith that the EU may have had that the UK can be trusted to treat EU nationals with respect and maintain their rights.
Grassroot campaigners have written to EU negotiators to say that the Home Office ‘cannot be trusted’ and today they’re conducting a ‘citizens rally’ led by the rights group the3million. Following the debacle when the Home Office mistakenly sent out 100 letters to EU nationals ordering them to leave or face deportation, who can blame them? They have lived in the purgatory of uncertainty since June 2016 and the Government has to do more to get a deal done.
The prolonged uncertainty has sadly, yet inevitably, led to discrimination; for shame. The three million have presented Nick Gibb, the Equalities Minister, with a dossier of evidence documenting examples of employers, landlords, travel agencies, recruiters and law firms discriminating against EU nationals. This is entirely because of the uncertain future EU nationals face and won’t be resolved until the Government and the EU seal a deal that secures their rights.
Much like the issue of money, the lack of agreement on this issue is delaying progress in Brexit negotiations. This however is much more serious because we are talking about living, breathing human beings here with hopes, fears and aspirations. They are not mere bargaining chips. It’s time for the Government to make a truly generous offer and do everything they can to end the uncertainty.
We should not be treating EU nationals that came here to live and work with legal rights as if they are fresh immigrants. Let’s upgrade our offer and guarantee all acquired of EU nationals after Brexit in return for reciprocation for UK nationals. With a more generous offer on rights, the EU is more likely to compromise on the ECJ. Disputes can be settled in joint negotiation or arbitration as it is currently between other non-EU countries.
This is a matter of great urgency. Every day of anxiety and uncertainty, and every example of discrimination, is a national disgrace.