There are some three million citizens from other EU countries living in the UK. And none of them know what will happen to their rights after Brexit. We need to give them certainty. No matter how complicated things may be.
The ballot paper on 23rd June seemed simple enough. Remain in the European Union or leave. Just put a cross next to your preferred option and we’ll take it from there. But as time goes on, we’re coming to realise that things are far from simple. We cannot just pack our bags and leave. Over forty years of shared history cannot so easily be unwound.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the plight of those citizens from other European Union member states who have chosen to live in the UK.
Under the ‘acquis communautaire’ of legislation that governs the day-to-day functioning of the European Union, citizens of each member state have the right to live, work and reside freely across all other member states. It has proven a difficult principle to implement. But it has become one of the fundamental tenets up on which the European Union is based.
It has also proven extremely popular. According to Eurostat, in 2015 there were 15.3 million European Union citizens living in a different member state from the one for which they held citizenship. That’s 3% of the total EU population. Equivalent to the populations of London, Berlin and Rome combined.
And the United Kingdom has proven to be a popular destination. Just shy of 5% of our population are citizens of another member state of the EU. That’s in excess of three million people. And yes, some 29% of them are from Poland. But 11% are from Ireland, 7% are from Portugal, 5% are from France and 4% are from Germany.
Furthermore, many of these EU nationals were in fact born in the UK. Of the 916,000 Polish citizens living in the UK, for example, almost 12% were born here. The same goes for 10% of the French, 9% of the Portuguese and 9% of the Germans.
And the others aren’t necessarily new arrivals. There aren’t any official statistics on how long individual EU nationals have lived in the UK, but estimates suggest that two thirds have been here for at least five years. And many have been here for much longer than that. We’re not just talking years, here; we’re talking decades. They have partners, houses, jobs, mortgages, cars, pets and children here.
Other than their passports, they’re just as British at the rest of us.
But our decision to leave the European Union has left these three million people in a bit of a quandary. They’ve been allowed to come here and to live and work here because our membership of the European Union says that they can. And their right to do so is guaranteed by the European Union treaties.
If and when we leave the EU, which could be as soon as 2019, this right will cease to exist. And nobody’s entirely sure what will happen next.
There are those who speculate that the ‘acquired rights’ enjoyed by EU nationals living in the UK would continue even after Brexit, but a recent investigation by the House of Lords concluded that this is highly unlikely to be the case. And so EU nationals in the UK may be unable to travel freely, run a business, be an employee, access education or healthcare, qualify for benefits or retain a pension. Or, indeed, stay here at all.
As a result of this uncertainty, tens of thousands of EU nationals living in the UK have rushed to apply for permanent residency documents, which provide evidence that those who have lived here for more than five years are entitled to reside here permanently. Effectively, this does little more than demonstrate that such individuals are exercising their rights under EU law. And it is far from clear that such a right to remain would persist after Britain leaves the EU.
The experience of some of those who have gone through the application process has heightened further the anxiety levels among EU nationals desperate to know what will happen to them after Brexit.
Several EU nationals living in the UK have had their applications for permanent residency documents declined, generally due to minor administrative issues like not including the correct documents, and have received brutal letters from the Home Office asking them to make arrangements to leave the UK.
Others have fallen foul of a little-known (and utterly bizarre) requirement that EU students and those not in work should have private health insurance cover. Even though they are eligible for NHS healthcare. And I, personally, was rather horrified to learn that being married to me, a UK citizen, does not guarantee my German wife the right to remain, either.
We cannot simply leave these three million people in limbo.
Politicians of all hues have demanded that the Government provides all EU citizens settled in the UK with the automatic right to remain after Brexit. Even Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who chaired Vote Leave during the referendum campaign, has said that EU citizens already settled here when the UK submits its formal application to leave the EU should be allowed to stay.
The Government, however, refuses to provide any such reassurance. International Trade Secretary (and my own MP) Liam Fox even admitted that the fate of the three million EU nationals living in the UK is one of the Government’s key bargaining chips in its Brexit negotiations. And that the Government is unwilling to relinquish it without getting something in return.
This might just about be acceptable with trade rules or corporation tax rates but not, in my view, with people’s lives.
Sure, it’s a complicated issue. We don’t have formal records of who has arrived here and when. We’d need to process quite a lot of paperwork. And we do still need to reach agreement on the rights of UK nationals currently living elsewhere in the EU. But that’s no excuse to dither around while three million people panic about their future.
We can fix this. And in doing so, we can enter Brexit negotiations with the EU from the moral high ground.
Quite simply, we should make it clear that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will have the right to remain here after Brexit. With the same rights that they have at the moment. And without fear for the future.
And we should do it right now.