Sadiq Khan has ventured to Brussels today to meet with European Union negotiators. London’s mayor has a plan to convince EU officials to offer Brits ‘associate citizenship’ after the Brexit implementation period ends this year. The citizenship would grant Brits continued access to freedom of movement and residency within the EU, along with a possible host of other rights linked to healthcare, welfare and voting in European Parliamentary elections. The bid, Khan says, is for ‘heartbroken’ Londoners and others.
Of course, Khan is extremely unlikely to be successful. Although London’s mayor wants associate citizenship to be high up on the negotiating agenda when it comes the ‘future relationship’, it’s probably a non-starter for the Government. If the EU expected any aspects of the citizenship to be reciprocated, this would essentially amount to a soft-Brexit, which has very firmly been ruled out by the UK and by the Political Declaration agreed to by both the UK and EU.
The Guardian also highlights that what Khan proposes is currently illegal under EU law. It seems difficult to see the remaining 27 member states updating their laws and treaties to accommodate people from a nation that voted to leave. It would also be particularly generous on the part of the EU to grant British nationals the right to live in Paris or Rome without any visa restrictions, considering that the UK Government will never extend the offer the other way.
But let’s say, against all the odds, Khan’s master plan gets some traction (Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the EU parliament, has thrown his support behind it, saying the EU should consider a form of ‘European citizenship’ for those who want to retain their link to the Continent). What’s not to like? Retaining the right to live and work in mainland Europe would be nothing to scoff at, nor would easy access for UK nationals to the EU’s world-class healthcare systems. Indeed, these were the tough trade-offs of Brexit: exchanging the right to live and work in 27 other countries for renewed sovereignty over one’s own laws, rules and regulations. On balance, it was a trade worth making – but if the benefits of the EU were offered up on a silver platter to British nationals, why would even the most committed Brexiteer resist?
Nearly 800,000 British citizens already live in EU countries, their residency status protected by the citizens’ rights provisions in the Withdrawal Bill. But plenty more Brits will want to move to mainland Europe in the future, and that could prove to be a trickier process for individuals. There are lots of examples of countries who offer foreign nationals the ability to claim some form of residency, but it’s usually for a hefty price. Malta famously sells citizenship to high-net worth individuals, while Greece, Portugal, Caribbean islands and even the USA grant residency if you’re willing to pay for it. These pathways to residency aren’t and won’t be available to most British citizens because of the price tag attached to them. So the creation of a new pathway to European citizenship via Khan’s plan, which is open to the vast majority of Brits, could prove a real game-changer for individuals, without crossing Britain’s Brexit red lines.
Brexit was about restoring rights nationally, not denying your fellow neighbour interesting offers from abroad. Opposing associate citizenship would amount to actively denying others an opportunity just for the sake of it – a rather petty, dictatorial attitude that feels at odds with the ‘global Britain’ mantra.
Living in Britain after Brexit with the option to live and work in the EU would be a win-win scenario. Khan is taking a shot in the dark. And his bid is likely to pan out as little more than a PR stunt. But if he helps convince the EU to open their hearts and borders to Brits going one way, we should hail his efforts as an unbelievable success.