For nearly 1100 days, EU citizens at home in the UK have had to live in limbo. For that same period of time, campaigners and activists have worked very hard to change that. They volunteered their time; they lobbied; they took to the streets; they built a network of supporters. Many things have changed positively as a result and there can be no doubt that the brilliant work of the3million NGO in particular has made a real, life-changing, difference to millions.
Looking at the group as an association formed to protect the rights of EU citizens, the story of the3million is a story of success. But no matter how successful that story, and how positive achievements so far have been, all of us citizens’ rights campaigners have not been able, so far, to change the one thing we want to change the most: take 3.6 million people, 5 million with our British friends in the EU, out of the limbo they are in.
I have written that word — limbo — so many times I cannot even tell you how often. Our problem now is that it has become meaningless. Meaningless because so many are now indifferent to it — not because they do not care, but either because it is impossible for them to process that we are still in this situation, or because they still believe all will be fine.
I would love to have the latter group’s optimism. But at every turn we have learnt that we cannot afford to assume that all will be fine. That is why it is such a challenge to find that our words have lost much of their power. People are abgestumpft — it is a great German word for this situation, more precise than the English words I can think of – a kind of combination of jadedness and callousness, the result of being exposed to a stressful problem for a significant amount of time and hardened by that experience.
Like the hate, like the lies that are still being spun by so many Brexit supporters to this day, the situation of EU citizens has also been normalised. An email I received a couple of days ago only further confirms my point. “This is how it is now,” the author noted, referring to the constant uncertainty EU citizens are living in. “Abandoned, lost and extremely anxious,” they continued – the normalisation of this situation is dangerous and immediately detrimental to millions of lives.
This has never been truer because no-deal has never been closer. Donald Tusk reminded the UK after the last extension “not [to] waste this time”. With a Conservative leadership election underway, Labour still sitting on the fence and Change UK changing itself out of existence, it is clear that nobody in the UK was listening. Yet, the reality is that the EU Commission and Council are wasting this time too, wasting it by again failing to do anything to help protect citizens’ rights.
Nowhere can we see this more clearly than with respect to the question of ring-fencing. The demand for ring-fencing is as simple as it is human: safeguard the agreement reached on citizens’ rights no matter what happens next. While that agreement is far from perfect, it provides certainty in key areas, bilateral solutions and would protect rights in an international treaty. Still, leaders of the EU view such ring-fencing as undesirable. They consider it to be cherry-picking, or cast it as a hidden, managed no-deal.
Following the so-called Costa Amendment earlier in the year, this had already become clear, but a recent letter sent by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay to Michel Barnier laid bare the extent to which that view still determines EU policy. It is the EU Commission and Council’s choice not to act. I will never accept that as a justifiable approach. There is no nice-talking of this and there is no scenario in which this is OK. It is that simple.
For the EU not to listen to the concerns of those who chose to embody EU values by exercising their freedom of movement is a failure at its very core, with potentially disastrous effects — not just for those affected, but also the EU itself. I was pleased to see the European Parliament elections were a much stronger statement of support for the EU than polls had suggested. But make no mistake: the consequences of not protecting five million people who chose to actively live their EU citizenship would be beyond dire. I will always support the ideals the EU was founded on. They are right and, in our time of global challenges to which answers lie only in collective action carried out together, those ideals have never been more important. Yet despite that firm belief, I am fast falling out of love with the EU political machinery that evidently has no regard for the people that are the EU’s beating heart.
As a result of the ongoing limbo, for EU citizens in the UK the most basic of all questions comes more sharply into focus every day: where is our home now given that we have been effectively abandoned by both the place we live in and the place we come from (the latter through the inaction of the EU)?
3.6 million of your neighbours, colleagues, friends, lovers and family; your doctors, builders, teachers and bakers have now been caught up between a rock and a hard place for three years. Leave campaigners promised us that nothing would change; the UK and the EU continue to say citizens’ rights are a priority. It is time to be as blunt as we can be: politicians on both sides have failed on these issues; failed millions. As no-deal comes ever closer, it is these politicians’ duty to cut out the spin and finally stand up for what is right.