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The government is ignoring advice on EU citizens’ rights that could save a Brexit deal

Groups such as the3million have come up with alternative plans, but the government would rather sleepwalk into no deal.

With negotiating time running out, you'd expect the government would be taking basic steps to ensure it emerges with some kind of Brexit deal. Yet if its treatment of organisations representing EU citizens in the UK is anything to go by, Britain's leaders are failing to do even the bare minimum to avoid crashing out.

Last week, the Department for Exiting the European Union published a technical note on citizens’ rights, detailing the “settled status” for EU nationals after Brexit. They even made a pretty video out of it:

The government promised to give “plenty of time” for EU citizens to apply with “minimised” document evidence, through a “digital, streamlined and user-friendly process” that will not cost “more than a British passport” and guarantees the applicant a right to appeal “if their application is unsuccessful”. It also underlined that no proof of comprehensive sickness insurance or fingerprints will be needed in the process and promises a “simpler, lower-cost process” for people who already hold permanent residence.

It's not the first time the government has been advised that its offer on citizens' rights falls short. Back in June, when Theresa May first outlined the settled status proposal, EU citizens (and campaign group the3million) warned that it was “too little, too late”.

“Fundamentally, the UK proposes to deprive EU citizens of current rights and is trying to impose 'settled status' instead, which is inferior to permanent residence in terms of loss of status, family reunion rights, risk of deportation and many other issues”, the group wrote in its reply. About 96 per cent of the UK’s EU citizens reject the settled status proposal, the3million added.

“EU, don’t be fooled, your citizens are not protected,” tweeted Stijn Smismans, the director of Cardiff University’s Centre for European Law and Governance. “It’s too vague,” he told the New Statesman, “how do you implement that?” There are many questions left unanswered by the DExEU offer, he says: what are the rights of those with temporary status? Would current holders of permanent residence have to apply again, which means paying again and undergoing new security checks? Would the Home Office store data on EU citizens? “The procedure and the substance of rights are both not sufficient,” Smismans concluded.

Smismans co-authored the3million’s alternative proposal, called the “registered residence rights”: a process to grant each EU citizen who has been here five years UK permanent residence, or temporary residence until five years are reached. The text warns that the government’s offer “drags EU citizens into the ‘hostile environment’” defined by UK immigration law, would give "arbitrary powers” to the Home Office in rejecting applications and that settled status would mean “no guarantee that the rules won’t change during our lifetime”.

The government’s stubborn refusal to hear the concerns of groups such as the3million is beginning to constitute self-harm. “We discovered in the media the proposal for settled status, after they [the DExEU] asked to meet for advice”, Smismans told me. “They claim [in the technical note] that people have been consulted, but in practice, and on the substance, there has been no involvement at all.”

The fact is the European Union will not agree a deal that fails to protect the rights of its citizens living in the UK, and like the3million, it isn't fooled by the DExEU offer, calling it “inadequate”.

“We don’t recognise reports suggesting that a deal on citizens' rights is almost finalised. There are still major issues that have to be resolved,” reads a paper published by the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, the day after the government’s technical note. It outlines red lines that the settled status proposal must respect (including being a cost-free, automatic, condition-less process, only coming into force after a transition period is concluded, introducing joint declaration for families). “EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU were told that nothing would change because of Brexit. The fact that the UK government needs 25 paragraphs to explain how their lives will change proves this was a fabrication,” Verhofstadt added.

To meet the demands of the EU before the December deadline, DExEU will sooner or later have to consider the3million’s alternative proposal or come up with its own version of extended residence rights. As trade talks won’t go ahead without agreement on citizens’ rights, and with the clock ticking, the government is ignoring advice and heading straight for a Brexit cliff edge. 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.