For nearly 900 days both the UK government and the EU have told us EU citizens at home in the UK and our British friends who live in an EU country — five million of us — that we are their first priority and that our lives would not change because of Brexit. We have known for some time that these words are hollow. Hollow like the empty shells of our past lives that we are now unlikely to ever get back.
But it is as the saying goes: hope dies last. So I too held out and hoped that the actual deal reached could still redeem the most basic of values that unites us all: humanity. Redeem it by finally ending the uncertainty and the gambling with five million lives. But the Withdrawal Agreement reached did not do that. Instead, it sacrifices those five million lives, our five million futures, on the Brexit altar. That is why hope died last night.
Because what hope is there still to hold on to now? A People’s Vote that will not include the vast majority of us — a fact that those behind the campaign do not even have the decency to be honest about? A General Election where both main parties support Brexit because the Labour Party is still sitting on the fence? A belief in rumours of a new centrist party as the saviour?
The five million of us — we simply do not have the time to hope that any of these scenarios will help us. The reason for that is as simple as it is tragic: for us Brexit is already happening. Thousands of EU citizens in the UK who work at a university, for example, came to work this week to find an email in their inbox telling them about the opportunity to voluntarily apply for a reduced status with fewer rights so they can stay in their home.
But while that reality is a tragedy, the Withdrawal Agreement confirms another one to us: that citizens’ rights have not only been sacrificed by the UK, but also by the EU. Which brings me back to the question of hope. I had hoped that the EU means something. That those who essentially live the EU by exercising freedom of movement, those who are the EU’s heart and very fabric by doing so, mean something. I was wrong. Certainly with respect to negotiators. As my British friend Fiona, who lives in continental Europe, wrote so aptly last night: the EU’s red lines on citizens’ rights were written in dissolvable ink.
That leaves me, a staunch pro-European and believer in the values that underpin the EU, with a sense not only of betrayal, but also a profound sense of loss of identity. If the UK, my home, chooses to force me to apply to stay, and if the EU cannot even protect those of us who have embraced it the most, if goods end up having more rights than people, how are we meant to move forward?
At a minimum, negotiators could now have done one decent thing and ring-fence the citizens’ rights agreements so that the chaos we are seeing today would have less of an impact on those five million people most immediately affected by specific, existential, Brexit threats. Negotiators made a judgement call and chose not to do that. That is as wrong as it is tragic.
EU negotiators certainly should have been better than this. They could have been better than this. Like the UK government and its negotiators, they chose not to be better than this. History will remember that. But while, as a historian, I take a little comfort from that, it will not help those of us who are already not fine.
In the end, negotiators on both sides have failed to protect what they have always claimed was their first priority. In the UK, this will, I have no doubt, mean the creation of a new Windrush generation in EU citizens. With a digital ID only, so no tangible proof of rights that is easy to show, discrimination will be widespread once settled status is rolled out. If everyone even manages to successfully apply for it in the first place. Due to how settled status is meant to be implemented — mainly through secondary legislation — eternal limbo looms. Meanwhile, our British friends at home in another EU country still have no certainty over their future freedom of movement rights as the can has again been kicked down the road. Meanwhile, no-deal Brexit continues to be hang over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.
The lives, the futures of all of us five million have been sacrificed by flip-flop politicians who promised and said one thing and did something else. Politicians who have forgotten their main purpose: to put people first, to put them before politics. If politicians fail to do that, fail at the most basic level, fail millions in this way, there is no return. For how could one ever return from choosing to make the lives of millions worse? Parliamentarians of both the EU and the UK still have the chance to not make that same choice: they still can agree to ring-fence citizens’ right now.