EU citizen rights – The Tory leave deception

Promises to EU citizens

All the major leave EU organisations during the referendum campaign made promises guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to continue to reside in the UK. The official Vote Leave campaign was unequivocal in its promise to grant those rights automatically, Leave.EU said it would be “wholly illogical” not to.

After the referendum leave supporting Conservative MPs reneged on these promises and threw those EU nationals onto the table as bargaining chips for a trade deal with the EU, in turn putting at risk UK nationals living in the EU.

However examining the economic risks, the logistical challenges and the human costs, the only realistic option is granting EU citizens automatic rights to stay.

Theresa May - EU summit
Theresa May attends her first EU summit in Brussels

Campaign commitments

Vote Leave were emphatic in their commitment to EU citizen rights. A joint statement by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, and Gisela Stuart on the Vote Leave website promised that:

“…there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.” [GH: My emphasis].

Leave.EU, an organisation that lost out as the official campaign to Vote Leave, were equally emphatic in their commitment to EU citizens. Responding to the question, “I’m an EU citizen. Will I be deported if we leave the EU?”, they replied:

“Absolutely not! Think of the upheaval and inconvenience caused if the UK and EU nations suggested this idea – any proposal such as this would be wholly illogical and extremely unpopular. Remember there are elections in both France and Germany next year – any politician putting forward such an idea won’t be particularly well received by the electorate!” [GH: My emphasis]

No room for doubt

Leave campaigners took to task anyone who suggested that EU citizens would be at risk from a vote to leave. The government’s position was set out in a white paper:

“…They [UK citizens in the EU] all currently enjoy a range of specific rights to live, to work and access to pensions, health care and public services that are only guaranteed because of EU law. There would be no requirement under EU law for these rights to be maintained if the UK left the EU. Should an agreement be reached to maintain these rights, the expectation must be that this would have to be reciprocated for EU citizens in the UK [GH: My emphasis].”

Vote Leave challenged this, its chair Gisela Stuart replied that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties would guarantee the rights of EU and UK nationals:

“You have got the Vienna convention, which guarantees the rights of existing citizens and existing arrangements.”

Peter Bone MP of Grassroots Out, was scathing in his dismissal of the government’s position:

“Clearly any EU citizen that is legally here if we come out of the EU would absolutely have the right to remain here. Any other suggestion is just absurd.

It is a scare story, full stop. It just shows how desperate the government and the remain campaign are.”

Leaving no room for doubt, the government’s position was also condemned by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as, “really grubby politics”.

The deception, then and now

There seems to be no evidence during the referendum campaign of the 128 Tory MPs who voted leave expressing any doubts on unilaterally granting EU citizens automatic rights to stay – or at least publicly…

Liam Fox MP
Liam Fox MP – Vote Leave Campaign Committee

Of particular note is Liam Fox MP, who was a member of the Vote Leave Campaign Committee. He voiced no opposition to his organisation’s commitment to EU Nationals. Neither did he mention reciprocity for UK nationals in the EU as a condition. However, a couple of months after the referendum the Guardian reported that Fox had done a volte-face:

“Fox, who was speaking at a [Conservative conference] fringe event, said the government would “like to be able to give a reassurance to EU nationals in the UK, but that depends on reciprocation by other countries”.

He said any other strategy “would be to hand over one of our main cards in the negotiations and doesn’t necessarily make sense at this point”.”

This begs the question, why didn’t prominent leave supporting Tory MPs such as Liam Fox and the “thoroughly researched” John Redwood MP, challenge the Leave view on EU citizen rights during the referendum campaign?

Logistical nightmare, damaging to services and the human cost

Estimates put the numbers of EU citizens in the UK at just over three million. Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN), a UK NGO, estimates that it would take 140 years to process applications for residency:

“Over the last five years, the Home Office has been processing an average of about 25,000 applications for settlement from EU nationals and their family members. At this rate it would take 140 years to process the cases of 3.5 million EU citizens.”

Many public services depend on EU nationals. For example the NHS depends heavily on staff from the EU, the numbers rose from 33,420 in 2012 to 57,608 in July 2016. This dependency has been exacerbated by George Osborne’s, chancellor at the time, decision to end bursaries for student nurses which this year resulted in a 23% drop in applications to university nursing courses.

Many sectors of the economy are reliant on workers from the EU. A briefing paper for the House of Commons Library examined the dependence of the various sectors on EU nationals, for example in manufacturing it is 10.2%, in construction it is 9.1%, in Professional, scientific and technical the figure is 6.6%. These and other sectors would face severe disruption if they lost this workforce.

Though the numbers are not reliably known, many EU citizens have settled in the UK and have families. There have been a number of cases reported of EU partners of UK citizens being told to return to their country of origin to apply for the right of residency in the UK.

Examples include a Dutch woman with two British children who’d lived in the UK for 24 years was told to leave the country by the Home Office after she applied for citizenship after the EU referendum. A German neuroscientist married to a British woman had a similar experience in another incident.

These examples gives a glimpse of the possible human cost of refusing EU citizens’ rights to stay.

Automatic right to stay – the realistic option

The Tories concern for the rights of UK citizens is nothing more than a disguise for the threat of collective punishment against EU nationals in the horse-trading over a Brexit deal.

The Tories stance puts UK citizens in the EU in a more precarious position. It encourages those of the 27 other EU members with few citizens in the UK to play hard ball with the bargaining chips the Tories have thrown on the table.

Given the logistical challenges, the risks of economic dislocation and the human cost, this leaves granting EU citizens automatic rights to stay as the only realistic option. After all anything else, “would be wholly illogical”.

Gary Hollands – February 19th 2017

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