Britain’s decision to leave the EU has brought uncertainty to many people in the UK. Few are as seriously affected as the 2.9m EU nationals currently residing in the country. As long as the UK remains a member of the bloc, these European citizens can continue living and working on British soil. Once Brexit has formally taken place, it is far less clear what their status will be.
Shortly before becoming prime minister, Theresa May indicated her approach to this issue. She said EU nationals currently living in the UK could eventually be granted a permanent right to remain. But this week in Poland she insisted that this would only happen if EU governments simultaneously provide the same guarantees for the 1.2m British expatriates living on the continent.
Mrs May has been accused of using these EU citizens as a “bargaining chip” in future talks. But Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has since reinforced her view. He has said Britain and the EU should try to come to a quick agreement — before formal divorce proceedings are triggered — on the rights of Britons and other EU citizens currently making use of free movement rules. As yet, there is no sign that any such agreement can be swiftly concluded.
Mrs May would be wiser to take a different approach. At the appropriate moment, she should declare unilaterally that all EU citizens residing in the UK before June 23, the day of the referendum, will have a permanent right to remain in Britain. This ought not to cause any difficulty with the Brexiters in her cabinet. The Leave campaign’s official position before the plebiscite was that Brexit should bring “no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK”.
There are sound reasons for such a move. First, it is the humane thing to do. Millions of Europeans have come to the UK in good faith, buying houses, taking up employment and putting their children in schools. It is right to end the uncertainty for them and their families, especially given signs of heightened xenophobia following the referendum decision.
Second, it would provide reassurance for UK employers who are uncertain how long they can legally keep hold of their European staff. In recent weeks, leading figures in the National Health Service and in higher education have called on the government to clarify their residency rights as quickly as possible, warning that Britain’s hospitals and universities rely heavily on EU workers. The same concerns affect business. EU nationals account for 31 per cent of workers in food manufacturing, for example, and 21 per cent in hotels and other accommodation.
Third, Mrs May’s concern about the actions EU governments could take against British expatriates looks overdone. In the aftermath of Brexit, a country like Spain, which hosts hundreds of thousands of UK expats, would run the risk of swift retaliation against the tens of thousands of Spanish nationals living in Britain if they were to change residency rights for Brits in Andalusia.
On her first day at Number 10, Mrs May talked about wanting to heal the social divisions that have been exposed in Britain by the referendum result. Part of this mission should involve ending the uncertainty hanging over Europeans living in Britain. Many EU residents who have lived in the UK for more than five years have the right already to apply for residency, just like any immigrant. Granting the remainder a permanent right to remain would not only be an act of decency. It would also send a timely message of goodwill towards the EU before the difficult negotiations ahead.