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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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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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.