It is difficult today, even for me – someone not normally lost for words – to come up with something to say. Why? Because I had believed that Theresa May could not sink any lower in showing her disdain for us EU citizens already at home in the UK. After all, she was the only member of Cameron’s cabinet who opposed a unilateral rights guarantee for us in the summer of 2016; she was the one who chose to make us bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations; she was the one who insisted on us having to apply to stay so we can be sucked into the hostile environment she created; she was the one who made sure that any protection mechanism for us is as limited as it can be; and she was the one who chose to make us collateral of Brexit. Even The Spectator’s Frasor Nelson spoke of the placing of EU nationals into ‘immigration purgatory’ earlier this year.
Still today marks that new low – and exactly because of all of the above. Because even though all of that has happened, even though May is responsible for nearly 900 days of limbo for millions of people, for them feeling a profound sense of anxiety about their future, she has still not had enough. That is what her speech to the CBI today tells us without a shadow of doubt. ‘It will no longer be the case that EU nationals,’ May stated, ‘can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi. Instead of a system based on where a person is from, we will have one that is built around the talents and skills a person has to offer.’
In making these points, May re-emphasised what Brexit has always been about: people like me, EU citizens who had the audacity to make the UK our home and commit our lives to this country instead of the place where we happened to have been born. That is why May’s message today is not simply a message about future policy. For EU citizens in the UK already, it is that proverbial punch in the face. We are your neighbours, colleagues, friends and family; your doctors, hairdressers and teachers. To choose words that essentially cast us as unwanted queue-jumpers, cheats and people without skills and talents undeserving to be here, in our own home. What is your endgame, Prime Minister?
Even a cursory glance at social media tells a story of unprecedented anger, despair, and a renewed sense of anxiety. That is because we already know that May’s words today are not only insulting, but also directly harmful. They continue to invoke the lies that EU citizens here have not contributed. Despite the government’s own MAC report on our contributions – which makes clear without doubt that we contribute positively – the line continues to be that there are ‘better’ migrants elsewhere and that EU citizens have been bad for the UK. It is in such rhetoric that we can find the roots of hate against us. This hate can manifest in verbal abuse – from telling us to ‘f*** off back to the s***hole’ we came from to labelling us ‘enemy aliens’ – but it is not its only form. Home Office figures clearly show a rise in hate crimes against EU citizens, and police already predict another rise as Brexit day comes closer. The EU referendum, and everything May and her government have done since then, directly enabled this.
But regrettably that has never been the only factor. A large portion of responsibility also lies with many pro-EU politicians who, since the EU referendum, have failed to make a positive case for freedom of movement and immigration. Of course there are welcome exceptions. From progressive immigration policies in the party manifestos of the Greens and the SNP, to the Scottish government’s laudable support of EU citizens resident in Scotland, there was always a glimmer of hope.
On the whole, however, the picture is a dark one that primarily shows the pandering to lies about freedom of movement and immigration rather than their casting out. Those who pandered are as responsible for the situation we are in today as those who overtly pursued anti-migrant policies. Ultimately, the failure to address the lies about freedom of movement is what delivered the EU referendum result in the first place. To not have learned anything from that will have devastating consequences as May is now exploiting the void that failure to engage created. She is doing so by pinning people against people, casting one group as better than another. That is despicable. And it is one of the hallmarks of xenophobia. As a result, there can now be no doubt that EU citizens need to brace themselves for yet more hate over the coming months.
The press called May’s speech her Brexit fightback. It is not. But it is a fight on the back of EU citizens. In less than a week, May reduced us from ‘valued citizens’ to ‘queue-jumpers’. That is not only shameful, but also intensely worrying because those who built the pyres of hate against us EU citizens, like Nigel Farage, have continued to build them over the last two and a half years. More subtly, but they have. That is why it will only take a few sparks to ignite those pyres again. Today Theresa May, with her words, brought the first matchstick to do exactly that.