Support is growing amongst MEPs and the European Parliament to separate citizens’ rights from the Brexit negotiations.
Last week, the European Parliament as representatives of all EU citizens hosted its first public hearing on the current situation of EU and UK citizens’ rights since the Brexit vote. The cross-party MEP taskforce with which whom I have been working with attended this hearing and included Lib Dem, Labour, Green and non-UK MEPs from other political groups. We are all in agreement with the lawyers, academics and citizens’ rights groups who gave evidence that UK and EU citizens’ right to reside (wherever they may have settled) must be the first thing agreed in the Brexit negotiations. We also believe that once citizens’ “right to reside” has been agreed it must be ring-fenced and kept away from the turbulence of the rest of the negotiations, in other words not part of the final deal and caught up in the usual convention for these sort of deals “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
Why should this be a priority for politicians on both side of the Channel? It has been 328 days since the UK voted to leave the EU, meaning that for almost a year around five million people have been living their lives in a legal limbo (there are around three million EU citizens in the UK and around 1.8 million Brits living in Europe). This is not about re-running the remain versus leave arguments about the benefits or negatives of migration. It is about treating people with dignity and allowing them get on with their lives with a certainty that the rest of us enjoy.
Since we formed the taskforce my good friend Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld and I, like many other MEPs, have received hundreds of emails from EU and UK citizens explaining the predicament they and their families are in. The stories are truly awful. They range from the unwieldy length of the application forms for permanent residence to a refusal to register children at schools, from an absurd request by the Home Office to take out comprehensive sickness insurance or leave the country, to having to prove that no trip out of the UK has taken place over many years.
These people have already been through a lot of uncertainty. A survey by the citizens’ rights group New Europeans shows that Brexit has led to a heightened state of anxiety for thousands of EU and UK citizens – at least 7 per cent said they were feeling depressed. Some case studies even report that EU citizens have been discriminated for jobs because employers felt that there was risk attached with employing them in case their residency status changed at short notice.
While reading the emails I couldn’t fail to feel sympathy for these people. But it was when their stories were presented to us in the parliament that it the pain that so many of them have been feeling truly became clear. I was delighted that so many had made the journey to Brussels to attend the hearing. As Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP put it so aptly at the hearing: “imagine a country with a population of around five million people where citizens’ rights were not guaranteed, where they could be asked to leave that country at any point and be forced to move away from families, homes and jobs. If that place were to exist we would call it a banana republic, at best. Why then is the EU and the UK allowing that sort of arrangement to exist?”
All that is needed is one bold and generous political act at the start of Brexit negotiations so the British agencies can tear down the bureaucratic barriers that are currently causing daily frustration and fear for so many people.
No lingering, no calculating, a “right out of the gate” comprehensive agreement. There is definitely the appetite to do this on the EU side. We shall see once the general election is over if the new Prime Minister is really committed to the basic rights of these people, who in many cases have been contributing to the British economy for years.
What is more, it would be in the interest of the UK government to go for this early agreement. The EU member states and the European Parliament have made it very clear to the Commission’s negotiators that citizens’ rights are a priority. An early agreement, quickly enacted by the UK government, would be seen as a very courageous and sensible decision by many EU leaders. It could well set the tone for the negotiations that are to follow.