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The treatment of EU nationals will be a litmus test of Boris Johnson's Brexit

Boris Johnson is going to war over Brexit. But what is he fighting for?

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

What makes Boris Johnson an improvement on Theresa May? Those of us who cheered him on into 10 Downing Street have a long list. He backed Brexit, so would stand a far greater chance of getting it done. He’d hire better people, who could outwit and outmanoeuvre his parliamentary enemies (as we have seen this week). He is acting with a pace and with a daring that is extraordinary – and commensurate with the challenge he faces over Brexit.

But the real point of Boris as leader is that he promised to give his party a better chance of healing the divisions of the referendum and uniting the country. This might sound fanciful, when his enemies are howling over the prorogation of parliament and referring to him as a dictator. But the ever-wilder allegations are impossible to reconcile with his record and his character. Fundamentally, he is a liberal: someone for whom Brexit is an opportunity to think globally, to lift our sights to more distant horizons.

So he might, in time, persuade others that Brexit is not about the hoisting of drawbridges or snarling at immigrants. He is acting decisively now because to do otherwise is fatal. If you believe that Brexit is the biggest domestic challenge in the post-war years, it follows that nothing else matters much. His biggest threat, now, is MPs voting down his government to call an election: it’s about the only tool they have left. So if it looks like he might win an election and return stronger than he is now, there’d be no point voting down his government. It’s the old story: for peace, prepare for war.

But this has brought about some strange outcomes, and a subtle but unwelcome change in tone. We have heard strikingly little about his vision of a ‘global Brexit’, his great theme as Foreign Secretary and his supposed agenda for what comes after 31 October. Or his promise of ‘liberal conservatism,’ the weapon that – he assured MPs – would save them from the yellow peril of a Lib Dem renaissance. His main priority is winning voters from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, and this requires different tactics. So instead of liberal Toryism, we hear about plans to lock people up for longer and build more prisons to do so. Brexit party voters are flocking to the Tories, who now have a comfortable polling lead.

And there’s more. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that free movement of people, the visa-exempt system that lets all EU nationals live and work freely anywhere on the continent, will end at 11 p.m. on 31 October. What will replace it? The government has not decided. This has meant uncertainty and panic for millions: what will happen to them? And to their children, at school here? The Home Office has managed to grant settled status to about a million of the three million EU nationals living here, and told others they have until the end of next year to sort out their papers. But the 31 October deadline has left two million wondering if they’ll end up with the Windrush treatment, suddenly victims of a hostile environment.

Take Richard Bertinet, who arrived in Bath from Brittany 31 years ago and runs a baking shop. Like all resident EU nationals, he was told that Brexit wouldn’t affect him — so he was shocked to receive a letter last week saying that he has failed to qualify for permanent residence and that he has five years to reapply, or go back to France. His case led the local news last week, raising the question: when this parliamentary battle is over, what kind of Brexit is Boris Johnson planning?

Anna Amato is asking the same thing. A former NHS clerk who was born in Italy but has lived in Britain since the age of two, she is — to use a Boris phrase — as British as Tizer and Y-fronts. Mother to British children, wife to a British husband, and yet also told by the Home Office that her application for permanent residence has been rejected. Damian Wawrzyniak, a Polish chef who has lived here for 15 years and has cooked for the royal family, also had his application turned down. In each case, it’s a shock. But it’s also baffling: isn’t this exactly what the new PM said would never, could never happen?

In No. 10, the view is that nothing has changed. That Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was simply stating the obvious — a legal technicality — when she said that free movement will end when Britain leaves the EU. ‘Of course we will have a generous scheme to replace it,’ says a senior No. 10 source. Maybe so, but there is no word of a replacement now — hence the uncertainty. If today a Newcastle factory wants to employ a French data analyst for a job starting in three months’ time, it’s far from clear that they’ll be able to do so.

There are worrying signs of sloppiness, even negligence, in the way the Home Office is handling all this. It has managed to process just one million of three million EU nationals in Britain — and, of these, only around 700,000 have been granted permanent status. It has an app that can be used to apply, but the iPhone version won’t be ready until the end of the year. One of the government’s adverts boasting about how simple it is for EU nationals to register has been banned by the Advertising Standards Agency because it exaggerated how easy the process is.

When cases hit the headlines, officials move suspiciously quickly. Mr Wawrzyniak, the chef, was suddenly granted permanent settled status after he made a fuss. But as he says, his case was helped by his public profile. Of the 300,000 Europeans living in Britain who have so far been given only temporary status, how many are victims of similar mistakes? How many were confused by a badly designed application process? Mr Bertinet was contacted by the Home Office and told that he pressed the wrong button when he applied online — which, if true, suggests something badly wrong with the system.

Like many EU nationals worried by the 2016 referendum result, Ms Amato applied under the permanent residence scheme (which describes itself as a gateway to citizenship) rather than the new EU Settlement Scheme (which doesn’t). The Home Office says people are wrong to get confused between the two schemes: but if there is confusion, whose fault is that? What’s more, she won’t be the only EU national to have been rejected outright for permanent residence: such people should be contacted, apologised to and offered help.

No one seriously thinks Italians are going to be rounded up and sent back on a boat. But the uncertainty, in itself, is unforgivable — and, to some, it will suggest that the Windrush debacle was not an anomaly but the Tory default. ‘My issue is not so much whether I’m allowed to stay, it’s more why should I have this threat hanging over me,’ Ms Amato tells me. ‘I’ve gone from being a citizen in this country with equal rights to being a second-class citizen, with the same treatment as an immigrant. My parents were immigrants, but I don’t see myself as one, having lived here all my life.’

Each one of those wrongly denied permanent status will have friends and family appalled at their treatment: even if these cases are the result of a clerical error, they still shock. The computer-says-no mentality, which lay behind the Windrush debacle, is still hardwired into the Home Office. The Prime Minister needs to issue firm new instructions. If a European in the UK asks to stay, the answer should be yes, unless there’s a very good reason to say no.

The Prime Minister’s sister-in-law is Amelia Gentleman, a Guardian journalist who broke the story of the Windrush deportations. She is now making inquiries of EU nationals, and is unlikely to be short of material. When the inevitable exposé comes, the Prime Minister will say that he’s shocked — which he will be — and blame a Home Office system failure. But as Amber Rudd found in her short spell as Home Secretary, it’s hard to blame the system when you run the system. Harder still for the Prime Minister when he has made assurances to EU nationals.

This takes us to a deeper conundrum. Johnson has been consistently liberal and pro-immigration: Brexit always has been, to him, a way to better manage globalisation rather than torpedo it. As editor of this magazine, he commissioned a leading article suggesting an amnesty for illegal immigrants, under certain conditions. A radical idea, but as Mayor of London he kept at it and ordered a feasibility study. Only a few weeks ago, he told MPs that he’s still attracted to an amnesty. And for a simple reason: he knows this is a question, fundamentally, about people.

For example, Trevor Rene, born a British citizen in Dominica, shortly before its independence. He moved here 15 years ago, served as an army reservist and married a Brit. His commanding officer wrote a letter asking the Home Office to help get his paperwork right so he could stay, but to no avail. Then there’s Dr Shashi Awai, who arrived from Nepal 16 years ago and overstayed her visa to work at East Surrey Hospital. She ended up fighting deportation lawyers, banned from helping NHS patients as she did so. Sanjeev Pande enrolled in Glasgow University in 2006 and set up a successful computer consultancy. But his papers were never in order, and he faced deportation.

All along, the Prime Minister has argued that such cases makes no sense: if people have been in Britain for a certain number of years, with no criminal record, why not let them stay? He’s right, but the logic applies more forcefully to the EU nationals who came here legally and have lived, worked and paid taxes in Britain for most of their lives. If they face a Home Office system that is prepared to turn them away because of a technicality, then warm words from No. 10 don’t count for much.

This is why the tone of Boris Johnson’s government matters. The Windrush debacle was the result not just of Home Office officials demanding impossible amounts of paperwork, but of a general theme of a ‘hostile environment’. If the Prime Minister seeks to create a welcoming environment after Brexit, the Home Office needs to be brought to heel. He once spoke about building a bridge to France: an architectural pipe-dream but it still conveyed the sentiment of a global Britain. It sent a message. Talking about ending free movement early, and about going after European criminals, sends a different message.

Opinion polls show concern about migration has dropped sharply since the referendum result: by some measures, Britain is now the most welcoming country in Europe. The issue was about control, not immigrant numbers. We now see the chance for a new, more liberal consensus that Johnson is ideally placed to create. Instead of putting EU migrants on a £36,000 earnings threshold (as has been suggested) how about lowering the figure for everyone? Or abolishing the cap on high-skilled immigrants? This would also help assuage Remainer fears about the nature of Breixt and show that it’s better engaging with the world, not turning away from it.

As Foreign Secretary, Johnson sounded several conciliatory notes. His party needed to make clear, he said, that Brexit ‘is not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover’. But in its first few weeks, we’ve seen and heard plenty from his government that looks very much like a great big V-sign. Not the signal he intends, perhaps, but the signal that many people — both British and European — are seeing.

We are barely two months into his government, so these are early days. But Johnson might have barely two months left: we live in accelerated political times. While he fights for getting Brexit done, he also needs to fight for the kind of Brexit he seeks to shape: it is yet another front on which he needs to do battle. The country and the world is wondering if his Brexit is globalist and welcoming, or if he’ll gravitate to the Tory comfort zone of talking tough and hoping for votes. It would be depressing if he ended up in Theresa’s May’s trap: being so consumed with the Brexit talks that he forgets to explain what this is all for, what kind of country might come after.

The next few months will be full of risks. His opponents will accuse him of behaving like an autocrat. He needs to make it abundantly clear that he is seeking an open, liberal Brexit – thereby confounding their caricature of a Little England tub-thumper. This should be easily done, given his character and his record. But his government’s missteps – whether over handling of EU nationals or the free movement of people – make it harder. Every illiberal or thoughtless step by the Home Office hands ammunition to his enemies.

One of the Churchill quotes he uses is that Tories should be ‘conservative in principle but liberal in sympathy’. A fine post-Brexit motto. It’s not too late for him to apply it.


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