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UK Must Unilaterally Grant EU Citizens Right To Stay

10/01/2017 17:21 GMT | Updated 10/01/2017 17:22 GMT
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"So how does it feel to be an EU citizen in the UK these days?"

In recent months, many EU citizens have been panicked into applying for permanent residency. For those who have never enquired, this a process which involves filling out an 85-page tome and surrendering one's passport for 4-6 months. It is a gruelling process, and one which EU citizens did not have to undergo prior to 24 June 2016. It is not even clear whether they need to do so now. Such is the exhilarating uncertainty of the Brexit era.

No doubt this is why EU citizens living in the UK have confessed to feeling "sad, betrayed and not at home".

Bargaining Chips

The number of permanent residency applications has surged since the referendum. However, rather than prompting a quick and robust defence from the government regarding EU citizens' right to stay, the office of the UK Home Secretary instead responded this week that the government would not be guaranteeing anything of the sort. The reasoning for this was as follows:

"Agreeing a unilateral position in advance of these negotiations would lose negotiating capital with respect to British citizens in EU member states and place the UK at an immediate disadvantage."

(One might cheekily interpose that the UK placed itself at an immediate disadvantage when it voted to leave the European Union.)

In any case, in the same communication on Monday, the government stressed its view that EU nationals "make an invaluable contribution to our economy and society". Perhaps it is just me, but this rings a little hollow. Certainly it is hard to reconcile with the examples of EU citizens who in recent weeks have been told by the Home Office to "make arrangements to leave" after having their permanent residency applications rejected. I suppose this would make me feel "sad, betrayed and not at home" too.

Blaming the EU

If the government's communication is to be believed, then the reason it refuses to guarantee the residency rights of EU citizens is because it is anxious about the rights of UK citizens living in other EU countries. Indeed, in November last year, a number of MPs accused the European Union of "worrying" indifference towards securing reciprocal rights for those UK and EU citizens who live in each other's territories. This, they felt, was causing 'anxiety and uncertainty' for the citizens affected. As a UK citizen living in another EU country, I can only assume that I am one of the people whose interests those MPs were trying to defend. Cheers, MPs.

Monday's Home Office communication likewise mentioned that the Prime Minister "wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living here, and the only circumstances in which that would not be possible are if British citizens' rights in other EU member states were not protected in return". In both cases, the implication is that the fault for these individuals having their status thrown so drastically into question lies solely with the EU.

(One might interpose that it is first and foremost the UK's vote to leave the European Union that has thrown their status into question.)

"Muddled Thinking"

The EU's response, however, is reassuringly what it has always been: that there will be no negotiations of any sort until Article 50 is triggered. Hence why UK efforts to negotiate the status of reciprocal rights have been met with a brick wall. But what the Brexiteers see as callous indifference, is in fact nothing more than the EU's stated pre-negotiating position.

"You mean the EU actually meant what it said about no negotiations before notification?"

Seemingly it did. And when Sir Ivan Rogers, who up until last week was the UK's permanent representative to the EU, tried to advise the government about the realities on the ground in Brussels, he was derided as defeatist in the tabloid press. Uninspiringly, it seems that his warnings fell on deaf ears in government. Small wonder that he chose to resign.

The Brick Wall Maze

So where does this leave us? Current developments are doing nothing to assuage the "anxiety and uncertainty" felt by those of us Brits who live in another EU country. Personally, my main source of anxiety is not the brick wall of the EU's pre-negotiation position, but rather the brick wall of "muddled thinking" (Sir Ivan's phrase) that surrounds the UK's negotiating position, if there is one. In refusing to take advice from those who actually work with the EU, the government is going into the negotiations blind. No doubt those EU citizens who live in the UK are feeling equally aghast at all this.

Contrary to what the Home Office thinks, most likely it would in fact improve the UK's negotiating capital were it to guarantee the right of EU citizens to stay unilaterally, if for no other reason than that it would create some much-needed goodwill. The EU may be less tempted to drive a hard bargain if it already knows its citizens' rights are safe.

In any case, that would be my advice. But no doubt it won't make it over the brick wall.