Yesterday marked a crucial watershed for the five million EU citizens at home in the UK and British citizens who live in another EU country. After nearly 1,000 days of living in limbo it was, for once, a watershed we could smile about. The reason? Conservative MP Alberto Costa’s amendment seeking to protect our rights. Passed unanimously, and hence adopted as government policy, the amendment requires the Prime Minister to seek a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the Withdrawal Agreement on citizens’ rights, whatever the outcome of negotiations on other parts of the deal. What this so-called ring-fencing would ensure is that the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU are secured no matter what happens next. The oft-cited mantra that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ would no longer apply to citizens’ rights.
Given ongoing uncertainties over timelines and decisions, the ring-fencing of citizens’ rights is, there can be no doubt, the only human response now. Five million people cannot continue to live in limbo. Just consider the now likely further votes and extension: during all that time we would be forced to continue sitting on the edge of our seats. People would be forced to continue worrying about their jobs; about their access to health care. The gambling with people’s lives has to stop. That we even got to this stage is bad enough, but choosing to extend the uncertainty for five million people, for their friends and families, for their employers – even though there is a solution – would be indefensible.
The human cost of Brexit is already too high. From EU citizens leaving their home in the UK because they can no longer cope, to those who hold suicidal thoughts because of the ongoing uncertainty, we have a duty, as a responsible society, to ensure this stops. It cannot be our legacy that we, collectively, failed so many people. Women and men; adults and children; the elderly and people with disabilities – they are us, we are them. Whether British or EU citizen, real people are being crushed.
Yet, despite that, there are still voices that argue against the ring-fencing of citizens’ rights. To them the idea of ring-fencing is just a different kind of cherry-picking. That position is misjudged and we need to make sure it is overcome. Five million people, their immediate lives and futures, are not cherries. We are neighbours, colleagues, friends and family, in the UK and throughout the EU. We exercised freedom of movement to fulfil our dreams of making home in another EU country; to commit our lives to the country we chose. Most of us had no say in the referendum itself and we are being stripped of rights that underpin our daily lives. That cost for us is high enough already; it must not increase further.
But this is not just a question about the immediate situation of five million people: it is also about the wider implications of the decisions that are being made. This reminds us of something a fellow German, Germany’s former foreign minister Klaus Kinkel, said at the General Assembly of the UN in 1992: ‘Europe does not grow out of treaties; it grows from the hearts of its citizens or it does not grow at all.’ Those words have never been truer than today. If we fail to protect those who live in the EU through freedom of movement, it is not just the hearts of five million people that will break. Vital bonds – those that underpin the very foundations of post-war Europe – could break too.
That is another reason why we now ask the European Council, and its president Donald Tusk, to change position and enable the Commission to ring-fence citizens’ rights. There are no legal hurdles to ring-fencing; there is no excuse to not pursue this approach.
We can be a responsible society, one where politicians and citizens say clearly: the five million people most immediately affected by Brexit deserve certainty now. Alberto Costa’s amendment has paved the way for us achieving exactly that. At this time of deep divisions in the UK Parliament, his work has been extraordinary. It united the House of Commons across all parties and views on Brexit. The amendment’s passing sends the strongest possible message of endorsement, unity and hope. Five million EU and British citizens are now counting on EU leaders to listen to that message. Mr Costa showed us that doing what is right has nothing to do with party politics nor existing mandates. What is right is always right. Now it is the EU’s turn to do what is right.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.