Speaking at the CBI conference on Monday, Theresa May proudly announced that post-Brexit British immigration policy will be based on skills rather than nationality. “It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”, she said. Those pesky Europeans, coming over here, taking our jobs, jumping our queues.
Except – there is no queue. No queue at all. Just people moving around in an area where they are legally free to move. It’s called “freedom of movement”. Genius, I know.
British people, and especially the British Prime Minister, should really know this by now, as we’ve been intensely discussing the concept since the country voted the leave the EU partly because of it, but here we go: freedom of movement is a fundamental principle in EU law. It means that EU nationals can “look for a job in another EU country; work there without needing a work permit; reside there for that purpose; stay there even after employment has finished; enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages”.
By saying they “jumped the queue”, Theresa May insinuates that EU citizens in the UK did not follow the rules when they arrived in the country. To Europeans (also defined as: “human beings from countries that yours has close relationships with”, Theresa), implying that their life in the UK is illegal, after years of learning the culture, working and paying taxes, is a bit on the nose. “I am one of those nasty EU ‘queue jumpers’, I have been teaching your kids for over 2 decades”, tweeted one. “I am incandescent with rage”, wrote another. “It is not EU citizens jumping the queue that are keeping non EU high skilled workers out of the UK but the rules set up by our own UK Government that create the hurdles”, said the3million group.
EU nationals weren’t the only ones to be furious. The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon judged May’s comment “offensive” and “disgraceful”. “EU citizens living, working, contributing to UK communities didn’t “jump the queue” & neither did UK nationals in Europe. They were exercising rights which provided freedom and opportunities”, said the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt.
If she regrets that there aren’t more “engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi” in the UK, May can’t blame anyone but herself. During her six years at the Home Office, she stubbornly set the impossibly low “tens of thousands” immigration target and focused on reducing immigration from outside the EU. Minimum UK salary requirements for non-EU workers are now so high that the Oxford University’s Migration Observatory describes them as “a tightening of the screw on British firms wanting to recruit foreign talent”. The visa rule that obliges UK citizens to earn a minimum of £18,600 to bring non-EU spouses to Britain, with additional fees for each child? That’s a legacy from May’s time in the Home Office too. Quotas imposed by the Home Office regularly create staffing crises for UK employers whose workers are refused visas.
“Any restrictions for workers from India or Australia is the UK’s responsibility. She as Home Secretary had complete control over it,” Steve Peers, a professor of EU and human rights law at the University of Essex, told me. “Mrs May paints a picture of faceless EU citizens preventing highly skilled fellow Commonwealth citizens from, say, India and Australia working in the UK, but the rigid regulations created by Mrs May herself make it hard for Commonwealth citizens to work in the UK,” Maike Bohn, from the3million group, wrote.
Theresa May insulted EU citizens twice: first by implying they came to the UK illegally; second by accusing them of the worst crime possible in British society: jumping a queue. “To jump a queue is a crass thing to do in Britain,” Peers said. “It implies an obnoxious breach of rules.”
As it happens, EU citizens living in the UK are the least plausible people to accuse of jumping queues, either literally or metaphorically. They will lecture their European visiting friends and family to make sure they don’t shame them by not queueing; they will queue twice as hard to prove they belong here.
Theresa May’s blatant, hostile attempt to rally support from Leavers won’t be enough to save her Brexit deal. It however has done wonders to alienate already wary EU citizens. The only queue they’ll want to jump now is the one out of this chaos.