Vote Leave told us that there was no reason to worry about citizens' rights
A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, leaders from across party divides, and from both campaigns, seemed to agree that protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, would be a top priority.
Despite that, no progress has been made on the issue so far and EU citizens continue to live with huge amounts of uncertainty about their status in the UK. While both sides have established the issue as a priority, it’s unclear how Britain will facilitate the ‘smooth and simple administrative procedures’ demanded by the EU for its citizens to acquire permanent residency in the UK.
As migration expert Jonathan Portes writes in a new report, this flies in the face of Vote Leave’s claims that current residents of the UK or EU would be swiftly accommodated in the event of a vote to leave.
“It quickly became apparent that the promises from Vote Leave that these groups had nothing to worry about were either ignorant, deceptive or both. Equally, the prime minister claimed that this issue would be easily resolved once the EU27 set out their position. They have now done so but, before the election, were met with a deafening silence from the UK side.”
The challenges presented to the UK on this issue are numerous. There are currently about three million EU citizens living in the UK, and even if there were theoretical agreement that they should all be naturalised, based on existing processes it would take more than 150 years to work through the administrative backlog.
Additionally, because these people haven’t previously been required to register with the state in any way, it’s unclear how the government would plan to identify them. Or what the cut off date would be — should EU citizens who arrived before the 23 June 2016 be allowed to stay? Or those who arrived prior to the triggering of Article 50? Or those who arrive anytime before Brexit formally takes place in 2019?
The EU has already laid out its negotiating position on the issue, and the UK will respond on Monday with what Theresa May insists is ‘a big generous offer’. However, a predicted sticking point is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the citizens’ rights debate. The EU believes that its citizens must have recourse to the ECJ in the case of disputes over their residency rights, but May has absolutely committed to removing Britain from the court’s jurisdiction.
The citizens’ rights dispute is another example of the UK government’s unpreparedness for scale and complexity of the Brexit negotiations. A swift agreement on citizens rights was supposed to get the negotiations off to a good start, establishing an amicable and cooperative tone.
Instead, it could be about to turn into a bitter dispute.
Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.