By Robert Heslop, YEM London
Theresa May has refused to guarantee EU citizens, who are current living in the UK, the right to stay in the country once the UK has left the EU. Her reasoning for this is that it would be a premature move by the government to unilateraly guarantee the rights of EU citizens to stay, when the EU hasn’t done so for the 1.2m Britons living in the EU27. This may seem like a pragmatic move, but in reality the Prime Minister will use the 3.3m EU citizens living in the UK as leverage to strengthen her hand in the upcoming negotiations. This position is morally outrageous, as the British government is using people who contribute to British life as bargaining chips. It is also presents economic dangers to the UK, because with this uncertainty EU citizens may choose to return to their homeland, leaving the UK all the poorer.
If the UK wants to ensure a harmonious and cooperative relationship with the EU, respect towards the citizens who have made their homes in the UK must be shown. Despite this, the Prime Minister is firm in her commitment to negotiate the position of EU citizens in the UK during the Brexit negotiations.
David Jones, Minister at the Department of Exiting the European Union, had this to say on the matter:
“The Government fully recognises that the issue of EU nationals resident in the UK is an extremely important one and one that we want to address as a matter of priority – just as we wish to address the issue of the rights of the UK nationals resident in the EU.”
So why should Prime Minister May give EU citizens the rights to stay?
The moral argument for allowing EU citizens, currently living in the UK to remain post Brexit is overwhelming. The 3.3m EU citizens, who have made the UK their home, pay their taxes and have families in the UK deserve the guarantee that they will be allowed to remain in the UK post Brexit. Fundamentally, this issue comes down to whether the UK wishes to remain as the country that welcomes those who come to work, study and make a better life here, or one which is vindictive towards the citizens of its closest and most important partners. All too often, the emotional and societal impact the vote to leave the EU had on EU citizens living in the UK is overlooked. As someone who knows many EU citizens who were deeply distressed by the UK’s vote to leave and are worried about their future in the UK, it is shameful that the British government isn’t acting to providing the stability they need and deserve.
The importance of EU citizens to the UK economy and the economic impact of the current uncertainty must come into consideration. EU citizens play a vital role in Britain, from agricultural work, contributing to our public services and in the financial services industry. Indeed Full Fact conducted research ascertaining that 10% of NHS doctors are citizens of the EU 27. With the NHS embroiled in a monumental crisis, with A+E departments overflowing and elective surgeries being postponed, it is vital that every EU citizen who works in the NHS has the guarantee that they can stay in the UK post Brexit. London is particularly dependent on EU citizens for its economic and cultural strength, given that 930,000 EU citizens call it their home.
Given the reasons for allowing EU citizens the right to reside in the UK are so strong and convincing; one would expect to see this reflected in support in the House of Commons. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. The British government comfortably saw off a proposed amendment to the article 50 bill which would have forced the government to ensure EU citizens had the right to remain, by 332 to 290. Only three conservative MPs voted against the government. With the Tory remain bloc in the House of Commons nullified by the government Whips and the Labour Party in the House of Commons handing the Prime Minister a blank cheque when it comes to Brexit, where will support for EU citizens come from?
Look no further than the House of Lords, where the government doesn’t have a majority of Peers, thereby leaving it vulnerable to any amendments that Labour, the Liberal Democrats can achieve by working with Crossbench Peers. In fact, the Liberal Democrats have already signalled their intent to advocate on behalf of EU citizens who are living in the UK.
Baroness Sarah Ludford had this to say on the matter:
“EU citizens need to be given clarity on of where they stand, as do UK citizens resident elsewhere in the EU. It would be shameful if the Government were to leave them in limbo, lining them up as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations.”
Despite the opposition in the House of Lords to the government’s stance towards EU citizens, figures close to the Prime Minister have made it clear that if the House of Lords seeks to challenge the ‘will of the people’ its very existence may be called into question. Whilst the House of Lords is not seeking to block Brexit, the threats by the government reveal the government’s paranoid approach when dealing with Westminster in regards to Brexit.
Thus it is clear that Parliament is unwilling to and unable to force the government to climb-down from its aggressive stance towards EU citizens. The UK government could start Brexit negotiations in good faith and show its intention to still welcome EU citizens and the vital contribution they make to the British economy and its cultural fabric. Yet the government’s refusal to do this has further eroded an already weakened image that the UK is a country which welcomes migrants, exerted great stress on EU citizens who live and actively contribute to British life and will jeopardise the economic prosperity of the UK.