#Right2Remain gains wider support: so what’s the problem?
On Sunday morning, the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the European Union (the ‘Brexit Committee’ chaired by Hilary Benn MP) released a report urging the government to unilaterally grant the right to remain to EU citizens living and working in the UK. The cross-party group of MPs (including prominent Leave supporters like Michael Gove MP) joined the House of Lords and a growing constituency of support for this most basic of Brexit measures. The Committee also called for the process of getting permanent residency rights to be speeded up, referring specifically to the British Future report drawn up with a committee I sat on for the TUC, and which was similarly composed of Leavers and Remainers. There’s basically just one group of people opposed: the Cabinet. So what’s their problem?
Four basic arguments (each has nuances and sub-arguments) are advanced against either including the measure in the Article 50 Bill or taking a unilateral step outside the Bill: that it would only benefit foreigners; that it’s wrong to grant the right to remain to EU citizens in the UK until UK citizens abroad get the same deal; that it would make securing a satisfactory deal with the rest of the EU more difficult. Here’s why none of those arguments holds water; and that it would delay Brexit.
“Only benefitting foreigners”
Put most nauseatingly by Lord Tebbit in the debate in the House of Lords, the argument runs that granting the right to remain for 3 million EU citizens in the UK would only benefit foreigners, when there are over a million UK citizens in the rest of the EU. Even if we ignore the moral case for action, which most people find overwhelming, especially after they have considered the concern and worry that not granting the right is causing, or the legitimacy inaction is granting to racists who feel freer to call for people to be ‘sent home’ (often regardless of whether that is somewhere in Europe) this is bogus reasoning.
Granting the right to remain would directly benefit everyone in the UK, because it would prevent an exodus of vital workers in jobs like health and social care, transport, retail and hospitality, agriculture and engineering. Last week research by the TUC highlighted that over 145,000 citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) were employed in the NHS and adult social care in England alone. The UK economy could not fill the 2.2 million vacancies that EEA citizens would leave if they vanished overnight, so it makes sense to make it possible for them to stay. It would also stand us in good stead for seeking the same right to remain for UK citizens in the EU by demonstrating good faith.
What about the Brits abroad?
The argument that taking a unilateral step would be wrong, because we haven’t secured the same right for Brits abroad is always an argument against unilateral steps, but it’s even less reasonable here than usual. There is an undercurrent in the argument that those backing the case for EU citizens are somehow not doing the same for Brits abroad (pretty standard ‘whataboutery’ for internet trolls, but deeply depressing when advanced as an actual political argument), when in practice it’s almost always the case that those arguing most strongly for the right to remain here are the ones arguing most strongly for the same for UK citizens around the rest of the EU.
Clearly, British organisations have most sway over the British government, but take the case of the trade unions, where the TUC’s calls for EU citizens’ right to remain have been echoed by the European Trade Union Confederation arguing the same for UK citizens in the rest of the EU (ETUC General Secretary Luca Visentini issued just such a call at our Congress in September.) Trade unions in France and elsewhere have been pressing their governments to take the same unilateral step as we are calling on the UK government to take, and the Brexit Committee did the same.
The Prime Minister has raised the issue ahead of the Article 50 negotiations with the rest of the European Union, and it is indeed disappointing that the rest of the EU has adopted a similar stance to parts of our government arguing that the right to remain should be dealt with only as part of those wider negotiations. But in practice, it is actually individual countries who should be taking these steps, as the right to remain isn’t actually in the automatic gift of the EU.
Securing a reciprocal deal
For that reason, securing a reciprocal deal with the rest of the EU – or 27 different countries – over the right to remain could be much more difficult than taking unilateral steps. But in any case, giving EU citizens the right to remain unilaterally would avoid turning EU citizens in the UK and Brits abroad into bargaining chips, and that’s a good idea for several reasons.
If people were to become bargaining chips, we would have to countenance the idea that they might end up without the right to remain – otherwise they’re bargaining chips that aren’t actually worth anything. And yet it seems that everyone believes that this isn’t going to happen, so this is a weird negotiating strategy.
All that would be achieved by including the right to remain in the Article 50 negotiations would be to bring greater complexity to those negotiations, while leaving EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of Europe vulnerable and worried.
Delaying Article 50
This is the least believable argument of the lot. Ministers argue that, by amending the Bill to include the right to remain, the House of Lords has delayed the invocation of Article 50. There are two things Ministers could do to make sure that doesn’t happen.
First, Ministers could accept the amendment, and allow the amended Bill to be enacted without any delay. Now that the Lords has carried the amendment, the only people delaying the triggering of Article 50 are those who seek to overturn the decision.
Second, If Ministers really don’t want the amendment in the Bill, but don’t want to delay matters, they could pledge unilateral action, start taking steps towards it, and the Lords could therefore drop their amendment.
Give people the right to remain
Hilary Benn MP, Brexit Committee Chair, said on launching the report:
“EU citizens who have come to live and work here have contributed enormously to the economic and cultural life of the UK. They have worked hard, paid their taxes, integrated, raised families and put down roots.
“They did not have a vote in the referendum, but the result has left them living under a cloud of uncertainty. They are understandably concerned about their right to remain, and their future rights to access education and healthcare. Equally, Brits who live and work on the continent are worried about their right to work and access healthcare after Brexit.
“EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU are aware of the forthcoming negotiations, but they do not want to be used as bargaining chips. Although the Government has said it wants EU citizens to be able to remain, this has not offered sufficient reassurance that the rights and status that they have enjoyed will be guaranteed. It should now do so.”
There is no further reason for the UK Government to delay the granting of the right to remain to EU citizens. They should make it clear immediately that they will do so unilaterally, and then get on with the consequently less difficult task of securing the same for UK citizens in the rest of Europe.