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8 December 2017

The 532 days it took for the government to guarantee citizens’ rights is a disgrace

After 532 days, the government has guaranteed my rights. No one will forget that year and a half in limbo – I know I won’t.

By Pauline Bock

Something weird happened this morning.

As I woke up and checked the news, The Guardian sent me a cryptic push message, which read: “‘We have now made the breakthrough that we needed,’Juncker says.” A… breakthrough? Could it be… possible?

I turned the radio on and for the first time in 532 days since the UK voted to leave the EU, it did not feel like I was living the same morning over and over, being told every time by the government that they couldn’t guarantee my rights.

After 532 days, which is 18 months, which is a long time, the British government has managed the impossible: treat EU citizens as human beings instead of bargaining chips and guarantee rights it should have guaranteed on day one.

Messages from my friends have started coming in – thoughtful and genuinely touching, they tell me they’re glad it’s all settled and fine now, that it’s great I can stay. I am truly happy for that. At this point, it feels good to wake up to any kind of progress. But it’s not all settled, and certainly not all fine.

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The problem is twofold. First, it has taken 18 months for my rights to be guaranteed, and Theresa, I’m sorry, but it’s a bit late now. Thousands of EU citizens have left the UK because of Brexit and the uncertainty it caused in their lives. Thousands more will follow next year, feeling like they have been treated badly enough and won’t take more flip-flopping from the Tory government. Those who remain have felt unwelcomed, on edge, sometimes even depressed, since the EU referendum. They have been told they may be registered, fingerprinted, requested to be listed by their employers. Some have been verbally abused, some have been refused jobs, or leases, or simply peace of mind, for five hundred and thirty-two days. You have left people in limbo for too long. No one will forget that – I know I won’t.

What’s more, EU citizens still have three million questions. The joint report on the agreement between the UK and the EU guarantees the right to stay to EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, as well as the rights of their families (children and partners in existing “durable relationships”). The European Court of Justice will be able to be referred to cases for eight years after Brexit.

But nothing has been said about the worries regarding the government’s “settled status” proposal, which the EU seems to consider enough, when citizens and activists have warned many times it is insufficient.

Nicolas Hatton, from the citizens’ rights campaign group the3million, has called the agreement a “relief” but warns that the group still has “grave concerns for the future, as the EU has given the British government the green light to implement settled status”. Among these concerns: the limit in time of the protection of the ECJ, as well as the need for the UK’s three million EU citizens to apply (and pay) to stay “instead of being granted residence rights at the moment”.

It’s even worse for UK citizens living in the EU, the campaign group British in Europe has added. “This deal is even worse than expected,” said its chair, Jane Golding, calling it a “double disaster”: “At the moment, not only is it unclear whether we keep our automatic residency rights, but it looks like we can also kiss goodbye to continuing free movement beyond any agreed transition period – which so many of us who work across Europe rely on to support our families’.”

And let’s not forget that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, which means that apart from helping the government to move to the next phase of Brexit talks, this agreement doesn’t guarantee us anything yet.

So thanks, Theresa, really, I’m so grateful. I may even stay in the UK now, apply, and pay, twice (because I only currently qualify for the temporary settled status, which needs applying for, and then apply again after five years for the real one), all of this to retain less rights than the ones I enjoyed before the fateful day of 23 June 2016.

And why not, once this is all done, I may even become a British citizen, just to make sure that’s a vote the Conservative party, which for more than 500 days ignored my rights and those of three million people living in this country, will NEVER GET.