Why EU citizens in Britain shouldn’t be used as negotiating pawns
The TUC is only one of many groups in Britain calling for citizens of other EU countries currently living and working in the UK to be given the right to remain when we leave the European Union. Others who support the position include the CBI, IOD, organisations like British Future, and politicians from Leave to Remain, and across the political spectrum. As Hugo Dixon reported on his InFacts website, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is the latest recruit. Yet the official position of the government is only that such a provision is ‘likely’.
Theresa May, at a press conference in Rome with Italian PM Matteo Renzi on 27 July, said:
“I want to be able to guarantee their rights in the UK, I expect to be able to do that, I intend to be able to do that, to guarantee their rights. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens living in other EU member states were not guaranteed. But I hope that this is an issue we can address early on.”
The Government’s argument is that giving such a pledge – which would clearly have the support of a majority of Leave as well as Remain voters, and is therefore uncontroversial – would weaken our hand in negotiating the same rights for the 1.2 million Brits currently living and working in the rest of the EU.
It is certainly the case that a commitment to allow EU27 citizens to stay in the UK would make it more likely that the same would apply to Brits abroad. But there are three key reasons why we shouldn’t be asking for an explicit deal, using the 3 million plus people already in the UK as negotiating pawns. That’s why the TUC has made such a commitment one of the 5 tests that need to be met before the Government triggers Article 50 and sets the timer running on Brexit.
1. It’s the right thing to do
Modern British values of fair play and rewards for doing your bit mean we cannot leave millions of people so uncertain about their future that they don’t even know where they will be allowed to live. Some of them have set up families, raised kids and in some cases retired after decades of work in the UK. Trade unions have reported to the TUC that many such people were especially fearful just after the referendum result, and they continue to be concerned.
These are people who have contributed and worked hard. They deserve to know that if they want to stay – in many cases continuing to make a contribution to the economy as well as our communities – they can.
2. It would be self-defeating to do otherwise
It’s inconceivable that we would actually kick most of the people concerned out of the UK, because key services and industries depend on their skills. There are 130,000 nurses, doctors and other workers in the NHS who come from EU27 countries. Agriculture, hospitality and care for the elderly also depend on EU27 citizens, often working long hours for low pay. The longer we leave such workers uncertain about their future, the more likely they are to leave of their own accord, leaving those sectors of the economy with massive staffing shortages. Fruit unpicked and even worse, patients waiting longer for their operations, is not what people voted for on 23 June. The Government should guarantee their status sooner rather than later.
3. It would stand us in good stead for the future
We’re going to need friends to navigate the complex process of detaching ourselves from the European Union, and arranging new relationships with the remaining EU nations. Leaving citizens of those countries hanging while we negotiate our exit won’t be good for our diplomatic standing, and will add to the complexity of the negotiations.
And, regardless of an explicit quid pro quo, we also need to think about the Brits working, studying or retiring abroad: they’re worried about their future too, and will be considerably less worried if they know we’ve done what is necessary to secure their entitlement to stay where they are. Their future status is likely to be sorted an awful lot quicker if we commit to the status of EU27 citizens in the UK.
The devil in the detail
Clearly it isn’t as easy as just making a commitment to do the right thing. There are lots of details to be worked out before we can actually make that commitment, which is why the TUC thinks we need to start preparing now. We’re working with other supporters of this move to work out those details, and make it easier for the Government to do what they need to do.