Of the many sad realities of Brexit, the most destabilising and direct issue for millions of people is the UK government’s refusal up to now to address the issue of EU citizenship rights for EU citizens who live and work in the UK and for UK citizens who live and work in other EU countries.
The three million EU nationals living in Britain have had no idea how their lives will be affected, and the government, despite its protestations to the contrary, has left them in limbo for more than a year before even making a first attempt to define a position, cynically using their lives as leverage for a deal.
I recently met with two groups, British in Europe and British in Italy, who represent Brits living in other EU countries. Naturally, they are extremely anxious about the potentially damaging impact Brexit could have on the everyday lives of the 1.5 million Brits who live in other EU nations. They have been working closely with the3million, the largest group set up to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, who face a similarly uncertain future. The main objective of these organisations is to ensure that EU citizenship rights, that were exercised in good faith by those who took advantage of them, are protected across the board during the Brexit negotiations.
What became apparent from our discussion is that the issue of EU citizenship rights, when it comes to the right to work and live in another member state, is not just a matter of residence, but covers the right to work or run a business, the recognition of qualifications, the right to study, the right to healthcare, to keep your pension if you return home, to social security cover, to be joined by a partner or child, and even the right to vote in local elections.
All of these are guaranteed under the broad umbrella of EU citizenship rights.
Just this week, I attended a citizens and NGO roundtable discussion on the subject in Brussels. The anxiety of UK and EU nationals regarding their future was palpable, and the sheer complexity of the issue became even more apparent as we listened to individual concerns. For example, what use is the right to work if the qualification they possess is no longer recognised? Or what use is the right of residence for a pensioner (such as a Brit in Spain) who is no longer entitled to an aggregated pension system or the state healthcare system?
I also attended a public hearing in the European Parliament on various petitions submitted to it, posing many questions about work, pensions, healthcare and study rights.
The EU negotiators have taken on board the concerns of citizens rights groups and made their position clear on the issue on 24 May, stating that:
The Withdrawal Agreement should protect the rights of EU27 citizens, UK nationals and their family members who, at the date of entry into force of the Withdrawal Agreement, have enjoyed rights relating to free movement under Union law, as well as rights which are in the process of being obtained and the rights the enjoyment of which will intervene at a later date [for example pension rights].
At the petitioners’ meeting the question on everybody’s lips was: What is the UK government’s position on EU citizenship rights?
For a year, no-one has really known – a truly disrespectful attitude for Theresa May’s government toward many of its own citizens abroad and European citizens in the UK. Why have they continually refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK over the past year? What do they intend to put on the table instead in the negotiation? Why are they using people as bargaining chips?
At last, at the EU Summit dinner on 22nd June, a full 365 days after the referendum, Theresa May finally laid out what she claimed was a ‘very fair, very generous offer’. But this position still provides no answers to crucial questions that millions of people need in order to plan their lives:
- She still will not provide clarity on a potential cut-off date.
- She has not said which court will protect those rights in the event of a dispute. Indeed she seems to still be wedded to the idea that British courts should arbitrate on European level agreements, a view likely to run into strong opposition during the negotiations.
- Is she still backing the new and potentially unlawful requirement for comprehensive health insurance (rather than the NHS) for EU citizens studying or not working in Britain (partners and pensioners for example)?
- Will the right to work for Europeans in Britain now require visas, work permits or quotas? Will labour market rules retain the principle of non-discrimination on the ground of nationality?
- What will happen to the coordination of social security under Regulation (EC) 883/2004, particularly in relation to the aggregation of pension rights for people who have worked in several countries?
- What are the government’s intentions regarding the right of freedom of establishment of a business under Art. 49 TFEU, which allows individuals and companies to set up businesses in another EU country?
- What will happen to mutual recognition of professional and other qualifications?
- Does she intend to negotiate for British students and universities to still be able to access the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme?
- And she hasn’t mentioned the right to vote in local elections, presumably because she wants to remove it from people who are unlikely to vote Tory!
So, a year from the referendum, we are none the wiser. The lack of compassion that this government seems to have for UK and EU citizens is only matched by their complete lack of preparedness. May has promised that a more detailed paper is to be published on Monday, but this will be as useless as Boris Johnson in a Radio 4 studio if it does not provide clear assurances on the these questions.
And even if the government eventually gets serious and finds an equitable and workable solution that is agreed by both sides, will they be willing to guarantee that settlement irrespective of what happens in the rest of negotiations? Under the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, then any solution found on citizens rights will be hostage to the talks on other issues right up until 2019. Citizens affected will still face uncertainty and an inability to plan their lives – unless there is a pledge to implement the agreement on citizens rights irrespective of what happens on other issues.