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Theresa May must reassure EU nationals in the UK - this is how she can do it

The idea we will do anything other than guarantee EU residents’ rights is absurd. The PM should grant them all Deemed Leave now.

Nine months on from the referendum and much ink has been spilled over the future plight of EU migrants. The government refuses to guarantee their rights until it has reciprocal reassurances from other EU countries. This argument does not bear the slightest scrutiny. To all intents and purposes, the government’s hands are tied, and it will have no choice but to guarantee EU residents’ future status soon. The PM should get on and do it, and grant them Deemed Leave on the day Article 50 is triggered.

The government has no choice but to guarantee EU residents’ rights for three reasons. Firstly, while we have a rough estimate that there are 3m EU nationals in Britain, we don’t know where they are. Free movement means exactly that, with no obligation to register with the Home Office or mark yourself out as an EU national. If the government were to make good on its implicit threat that EU nationals’ rights are no longer valid, it would presumably look to put that into action somehow and curtail these residents’ rights. Yet there is currently no way to establish who or where those people are.

Even if we could work out where they were, a system of registering 3m migrants who are currently not on the system would overwhelm the Home Office. The Migration Observatory has estimated that it would take 140 years at current rates to register all EU migrants in the UK. That would require a massive dedication of extra cash and mass recruitment of new staff. Hardly a priority at a time when the Home Office has, to put it mildly, some other jobs to be getting on with. Non-EU migration still runs way over the 100,000 target; it will have to come up with a successor system for EU migration post-Brexit; and negotiate fiendishly difficult agreements around the border at Northern Ireland and Calais. To say nothing of its ongoing responsibilities on counter-terrorism and policing. Now is not the moment to devote massive resources on a fool’s errand.

But let us set aside these practical concerns and imagine the PM did decide to make good on its implicit threat to EU residents, if she does not receive the reciprocal reassurances from the EU27. It would be diplomatic madness to start threatening the rights of EU residents. Is the UK really going to seek to expel law-abiding migrants who came to Britain legally, splitting up families and creating a public outcry, just because their home government refuses to guarantee Brits’ rights there? Are we really going to stop, say, all the Czechs in Britain using the NHS because Prague decides to play hardball? The idea would be patently ridiculous even if it were the only issue on the table, given all 27 EU countries are – and will remain – among Britain’s strongest political and economic allies. But even considering it as we are negotiating a generationally-significant trade deal which will depend upon unanimous agreement from the member states is for the birds.

So the Prime Minister will guarantee the rights of EU nationals eventually, not only because she doesn’t have the capacity to do otherwise, but because she would shoot her negotiators in the foot if she tried. The real question is how to do it.

On the day she triggers Article 50, Mrs May should grant all EU residents in Britain Deemed Leave.

Deemed Leave is a little-used part of the immigration system. It grants legal status to people who are here legally but whose original grounds for entry have expired. It is often used, for example, for diplomats at the end of their posting; their legal status here has evaporated and they are outside the immigration system, but we want to give them time to get their affairs in order. When we leave free movement, EU residents' original reason for being here evaporates. But by granting them Deemed Leave, at a stroke the government will have guaranteed their rights as before.

The major advantage of Deemed Leave is that it is intrinsic to the person. You are deemed to have it by virtue of already being here, rather than because you fill out some form. Once it has granted it en masse to EU residents, the government can then set up a system for those with Deemed Leave to apply to get proof of it. This can be a simple, light-touch system: anyone who can prove they were resident in Britain before Article 50 is triggered, for example with a utilities bill or payslip, will be easily able to obtain proof of their rights. Because it is separate from EU rules around permanent residence, the form can be much simpler than the ludicrous 85-page from they are currently required to complete. Furthermore, Deemed Leave will decouple their right to be here from the two-year ticking clock of the Brexit process, reassuring anxious minds. That should give other EU countries the cover they need to decouple the rights of British migrants in their countries from the Brexit process. They could still be treated reciprocally, but not as part of the wider negotiations.

The current debate on whether to guarantee EU migrants’ rights tilts at windmills. The pertinent question is: how? Granting Deemed Leave to all Europeans who were resident here before the date Article 50 is triggered is a practical, reasonable way to do it.

Chris Murray is a research fellow at the IPPR.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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