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For EU citizens, Theresa May's “settled status” after Brexit looks anything but

Most want to leave the UK, and they have three million reasons why.

On June 26, Theresa May unveiled the government’s proposal on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit: a new “settled status” will grant EU citizens “the right to live in Britain, to undertake any lawful activity, to access public funds and to apply for British citizenship.” Every one of the three million EU citizens will be required to apply for a special ID card granting them the status.

This came more than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, and since the British government has been accused of using EU citizens as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations. Many of them, after a year of uncertainty, judged that May’s proposal was too little, too late.

“Mrs May is treating me like a criminal”, says Joan Pons Laplana, 42, from Barcelona, who has worked as a nurse in the NHS and lived in Chesterfield since 2000. “She wants me fingerprinted and to make me carry an ID card to be able to work and live in the UK.” He feels “furious and insulted” by the proposal: under the “settled status”, Laplana, who is divorced with three British children, would not be able to leave the UK for more than two years without losing his right to remain. As he had saved to retire in Spain, to him, May’s proposal is a “prison sentence”.

“If I want to see my children and potentially grandchildren grow up, I can't move to live or work outside the UK. And to top up the insult Mrs May wants me to pay for it!”

Some, like Alexa Stephenson, a 45-year-old French national who has lived in Cambridge since 1998, have decided not to apply to the new status. “It’s discrimination. Why should we carry a special ID card when the UK voted against a national one?” Married to a Brit and mother to children with dual citizenship, she fears she may become a “second class citizen”.

“What if I have to go and care for my elderly mother and need to reapply? What will happen to children, do they have to get a settled status? Would it entail our rights to get credit, own a house? Why [are they] putting citizens who are contributing to the economy through hoops? It almost feels like a deterrent to stay.” Her children are in secondary school – that, she says, is the “only thing” that prevents her family from moving to the EU, "but it might happen”.

Francisca Oxley, 47, a Dutch national who married a UK national and has been living in Surrey for 17 years, also fears becoming “a second rank citizen” after Brexit.

“We are given a 'right to remain', but not “'free movement'.” She says her family will have moved to another EU country by 2018.

To EU nationals who already hold permanent residency (PR), May’s proposal makes no sense.

“How can we trust our government after it has just declared the permanent residency documents for which so many EU citizens successfully applied as now null and void?” wonders Maria Bates, 58, a retired teacher from Germany who has lived in the UK since 1983. “We cannot be assured that it will not change its mind again.”

“I spent a good deal of time, effort and money getting my PR application done: 3Kg of paperwork went to the Home Office!” Nicole Wevers, 46, a Dutch manager from London says. “They have all my details on file, why do I have to apply again? It should be really easy for them to just convert my PR to settled status!”

Many EU citizens who have prepared the paperwork to apply to PR now feel like their efforts were pointless.

“I have gathered the info to apply, I even went to Spain to renew my Spanish ID card so I can send my passport away and continue to travel while my application is processed”, says Francisco Gomez, a 36-year-old vet surgeon from Alhaurín de la Torre, Spain, who has been living in the UK since 2006. “Now I’m not sure if I should send it.”

Catherine, a 60-year-old university lecturer from Greece who has lived in London for 22 years, declined to give her full name as her PR application “has been pending since March.” She is worried about the requirements of the settled status – the job she holds does not qualify her as financially self-sufficient, and it is “mentioned nowhere” whether Theresa May’s proposal will require EU citizens to be.

Răzvan Baba, 28, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, will be applying to PR in September, once he has been in the UK for the five-year threshold. “Having evidence of paper trail, and an application number is a better start than waiting.”

“It feels very much as though because we're not eligible to vote, they [the Home Office] can do anything to us”, said Sylvie Kilford, a 30-year-old Polish national from Market Harborough who has lived in the UK since 2005. Like most of the EU citizens interviewed for this article, Kilford and her husband are now looking to emigrate: even if she got the settled status, her career as an academic may demand working at an EU university for a few years, which would nullify the status and require that she applies again. “I can't build a dignified life in this country anymore”, she says.

“The Europeans who can leave won’t be sticking around in Brexit Britain”, says Sigrun Campbell, 40, from Denmark, who has lived in the UK since 1999 and has three children with her British husband. They intended to stay but are now planning to move to Denmark in 2019, where Campbell says that she feels her children will have “a better future” than in the UK. “They [the Home Office] focus on the amount of EU people leaving, forgetting that some of them have British partners, who are probably highly skilled as well, who are going to be leaving as well.”

Petra Suckling, 62, originally from Germany, has lived in Northampshire with her British husband for 37 years. “We have been married since 1980 and that gives me no rights in Britain”, she says. Because of “impending lifelong insecurity”, they are now planning on moving to an EU country. “In EU countries”, Petra Suckling says, “spouses do have rights to stay.”

Some, like Miki Chojnacka, 41, a Polish business owner who has lived in London for four years, find the proposal fair. “It’s basically the same rights as a citizen, minus voting”, she says, adding she hopes the registration process will be “online, user friendly and painless”, unlike the “ridiculous” 85-page PR application. But if the post-Brexit situation become “unfavorable”, she knows that she, too, can always move. “I work, pay taxes, create jobs, integrate well, respect the culture and laws. If I am not welcome anymore, it's Britain's loss.”

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.