Last week, Michael Gove revealed that, should he become prime minister, he will extend a “generous, large-hearted, fee-free offer” to EU nationals who were living in the UK at the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016.
This plan came as a surprise, not least to me, a lifelong Polish immigrant who well remembers Gove’s role in the Leave campaign. Under the new proposal, I would no longer have to “apply” to stay in Britain, where I have lived since I was eight years old, but simply register with no further fuss. More importantly, I would also be offered free British citizenship – a considerable bargain, given the current £1,330 fee.
Under the present system, my application for permanent residency has already been rejected; I cannot apply for British citizenship, and I have no idea how much better I will fare under the “Settled Status” scheme. I should therefore be glad to hear of Gove’s new proposal.
Yet all I feel is discomfort. As much as I would love to enjoy the full rights of a citizen, becoming part of Michael Gove’s campaign is a steep price to pay.
Unlike Theresa May, Gove has promised to not treat EU nationals as “bargaining chips” – yet that is exactly what he is doing. His appreciation of European immigrants was notably absent during the Leave campaign, when he consistently characterised us as being a burden on British society. He did all that was in his power to legitimise every lingering suspicion, every prejudice, every “genuine economic concern” that the voters might have had about their Polish neighbours. Now he offers to fix the problems that he has scrupulously engineered himself. In this light, it is impossible to not look at Gove’s offer as a calculated bargain that he hopes to strike with the British public.
In the run up to the vote, Leave campaigners made clear that the legal status of EU residents would remain untouched, regardless of the vote’s result. The subsequent abuse of rights suffered by EU nationals following the 2016 referendum generated a considerable amount of media outrage and became a powerful tool for pro-EU rhetoric. Now Gove is hoping to neutralise these arguments. He is seeking a mandate to deliver a “good”, “non-divisive” Brexit and distance himself from the immigrants-taking-our-jobs crowd by generously agreeing to shield EU immigrants from the horrors of May’s Home Office.
But Europeans are not the only ones affected by the hostile environment: they aren’t even its main victims. One simply has to look to the Windrush scandal to see that the precarious situation of EU immigrants is just the tip of the iceberg, and May’s “go home vans” were roaming the streets long before the word Brexit entered common parlance.
Gove’s promise to grant free citizenship to immigrants from the EU, but not to immigrants from elsewhere who are in the same position, reminds me that much of the sympathy and righteous anger expressed at the mistreatment of EU nationals is simply a thin veil for overt racism. I have met too many people who have strong views about the hijab, but are nonetheless convinced of their own tolerance because they smile at their Lithuanian neighbour. Too many times I have been told that I’m “one of the good ones” by people convinced that they’re paying me the highest of compliments. Somehow, I don’t want to be the immigrant friend Gove can point to.
Gove’s proposal is, in itself, good. I wish for a Britain where I can live as a Polish woman without my “contribution to society” being continuously weighed and debated; where my Britishness isn’t undermined by the spelling of my name; where I can easily regulate my immigrant status without battling hostile institutions threatening me with deportation. But unlike Gove and the vast majority of the Conservative Party, I want this for all the people who are facing the current brutality of the Home Office.
Exempting EU nationals from otherwise cruel and racist policies does nothing to dismantle the hostile environment, merely grants it a gracious and compassionate façade. “To have an ‘exception’ made,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “is to implicitly accept the rule.” From what rule is Gove willing to exempt Europeans in exchange for our acceptance?