A year after the referendum and 3 months after the letter triggering Article 50, negotiations have finally actually started. It is right that the first item in the negotiations is about people, the EU27 and the UK both made clear they want the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU to be one of the first issues to be resolved.
What is not right is the way the UK government have gone about this. After Theresa May built up expectations at a meeting with the Prime Ministers of the other 27 countries that she was going to make a ‘generous offer’, the published paper on Monday fell very far short of that.
For me, this also brought home the sad realisation of how others now see my country. A report by Deloitte found that nearly half of highly-skilled workers from the EU resident in Britain are considering leaving the UK in the next five years. One of the agencies reporting a short fall in farm workers recently said clearly that people aren’t coming to work because “The grim reality is that the perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we’re racist”. This is a truly shocking indictment of how we are seen from abroad. It is also the backdrop against which the offer to citizens should be seen. The Prime Minister’s policy documented leaves many questions unanswered; more importantly it leaves many lives in the balance. It does nothing to address the idea that we just don’t want foreigners to come here.
There are many issues this proposal from the government leaves unresolved and I cannot do them all justice in this piece but here are a few concerns. Firstly, as the proposal stands EU nationals will have their rights restricted if they want their spouses or children to join them in the UK, with language tests and income thresholds, as well as the fees that go with it (the current application fees for a spouse to join their partner in the UK is over £5,500) - the UK’s immigration rules (which will be the default post-Brexit) were found to be the least family-friendly of 38 developed nations according to the Migrant Integration Policy index.
There are huge questions over the five year eligibility in order to gain “settled status” - what if you worked abroad during that period as, say, an academic or engineer but still working for the UK based company? Will that period outside the UK count towards eligibility or not? Further questions arise over the “settled status”, particularly as an EU citizen who has gained the status would lose it again if they go abroad for two years, even if caring for a loved one or for work, or joining a spouse who is a UK citizen working in another country. This is neither fair or right.
The proposal also brings into force a documentation process - that means EU citizens who have lived in the UK for decades, brought up families here and contributed to our society will be expected to produce documents proving their right to be here. No wonder we are now seen as, at best, unwelcoming. In addition I am immensely frustrated at the government’s decision to disregard those EU citizens resident in the UK who have already completed the costly and laborious process of applying for permanent residency. Instead, they will have to start the process again. This is a slap in the face for people who have made clear their intention to stay in the UK and who are being treated with disdain by the government.
Finally, I am concerned for what this means for the more than one million British citizens residing in the EU - will our citizens in other countries now be offered a similar second class citizenship status? As the group representing them, British in Europe, has said, May’s proposal represents a ‘severe reduction of the current rights’ that these British people currently enjoy in other European countries.
I really do feel that with all the concerns about how we are viewed by others and following the Prime Minister’s own hype the government could have come up with a better offer. I can only hope that through the negotiations the UK manages to improve its offer and repairs some of the damage it has done. This is an issue that will determine the state of our economy, of our society and ultimately, the place of our country in the world.