In the chaos after the Brexit vote, no one really noticed when Theresa May adopted an odd position on EU nationals*. Throughout the campaign, everyone – from Ukip to the Lib Dems, Boris Johnson to Andy Burnham – had been clear that the Brexit debate was not about deporting anyone. Those EU nationals who were in Britain should stay here. In a fractious debate, it was a note of rare consensus: no one's status was in question. But days after the referendum, the then Home Secretary sat down on Robert Peston’s sofa and suggested that EU nationals might not be safe after all, and that she might use them as bargaining chips in her negotiation. (A plan which would later backfire badly.)
It was baffling, bizarre and – to many - appalling. Religious and business leaders certainly were disgusted (and said so), but not many others took up the cause. The EU nationals seemed to be a victim of the Brexit civil war. The two sides were still fighting, unable to unite in defence of our EU countrymen. It was even said, at the time, that it would be too complicated to grant them reassurance.
Later today, an Inquiry into this topic will publish its results into how granting assurance to EU nationals is very feasible indeed. I had the honour of sitting on the panel, a mixture of Remainers and Brexiteers, Tories and trade unionists, academics and businessmen. Our two guiding principles were: no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK, and their status would be no less favourable than at present. Evidence was taken from all manner of groups and individuals, with lawyers consulted all the way through. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP who chaired Vote Leave, chaired this inquiry, and it was the brainchild of a think tank, British Future. Here’s my upshot:
- The day that Theresa May invokes Article 50 should be the cut-off day. It’s difficult to draw the line, but anyone who pitches up after Theresa May serves notice could not reasonably expect to stay here permanently. Will this lead to an influx of EU nationals before then? The rate may well increase, but we’ve managed to accommodate 3m so far and shouldn’t panic about a few more thousand - most of whom are, nowadays, Western rather than Eastern Europeans (see graph, below). Backdating it to the referendum would leave the government open to legal challenges.
- Of the 2.8m EU nationals working in Britain, 1.8m already qualify for permanent status because they have been here for five years or more. These EU nationals can pay £65 for this ‘Permanent Status’, but the paperwork is so convoluted that 35 percent of applications are rejected (vs 5 percent of the Indefinite Leave to Remain applications for non-EU migrants). This process needs to be simplified as a matter of urgency.
- The remaining 1m should have five years to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain if they could demonstrate they were legally living in Britain when Article 50 was triggered. The cost should be capped at the cost of a passport: about £75.
- The current system would take 150 years to clear applications so EU nationals with a clear case (ie, the clear majority of them) should be processed by the 140-odd local authority Nationality Checking Services – and government databases (tax, welfare, National Insurances) used to provide what should be a straightforward approval. More complicated cases could be handled by a dedicated Home Office unit.
- Granting assurance to all EU national is supported by 84 percent of Brits and 77 percent of Leave voters according to a poll by British Future. The referendum was not a vote to boot out (or destabilise) anyone, and Mrs May would do a great disservice to her country if she thought otherwise. Not being able to control immigration was a problem; having it running at three times her 100,000 target is a problem. But the people who live amongst us now; no one really sees them as a problem. Especially not when they're manning our hospitals, making our food or teaching in our universities. This sums up Britain: we may be unsure about immigration, but we love immigrants. In other countries (like Sweden) it’s the other way around. We hire foreigners to run our football teams, run the Bank of England and last night, we voted a Finnish singer as runner-up in X Factor. The British public have always understood the difference between xenophobia and concern about high migration, even if the distinction is lost on many politicians.
- Granting assurances to EU nationals would not leave British expats 'high and dry'. By offering this assurance unilaterally, Theresa May would be making a potent gesture of goodwill. Angela Merkel isn’t up for a reciprocal deal on expats; she quite rightly won’t agree a thing until the final Brexit negotiation has finished. But Spain is not going to round up and expel pensioners form El Dorado. Idi Amin did mass expulsions; civilised countries don’t. Everyone’s rights are anyway guaranteed by the Vienna Convention (which protects the acquired rights of individuals in situations of treaty change).
Britain needs its EU nationals. We’re not accommodating them as a favour to Poland. It ought to be unthinkable that we might use the French, German and Polish workers who have so enriched British life as bargaining chips. About 150,000 of them work in health and social services; they make up about a quarter of the workforce in our food manufacturing sector. Britain is stronger and more highly-skilled after years of accepting the best immigrants any country could wish for.
But I’ve written lots about this: journalists can point to problems, but we seldom outline solutions. That task was taken by British Future, a group set up to tackle the problems of migration, integration, opportunity and identity. It set up the taskforce, paid the lawyers, assembled the panel and did the job too important to wait for government. The uncertainty that surrounds these EU nationals and their families, never intended by any politician who advocated Brexit, can be ended with a nod from the Prime Minister.
One final thing: two-thirds of them can get a passport anyway, and with it, the right to vote in the next general election. These EU nationals will probably represent the biggest single addition to the electorate in a 2020 election. They will remember her ambivalence towards them, or their place in Britain. Nicola Sturgeon has worked this out even if the Tories haven't: the SNP warmly endorses the idea of granting assurance to EU nationals. As does Labour. Does the PM really want to let this linger?
The plan has been published. The EU nationals are now waiting for Theresa May's word.
* I say 'EU', but the inquiry looked at Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland who, with the EU, form the EEA+ group. All of this excludes Irish nationals, whose status in Britain is guaranteed by the 1949 Ireland Act.