As we pass the anniversary of the Brexit referendum, this whirlwind year has perhaps been hardest on those whose freedom to stay in their country of residence remains unresolved. The lives, security and futures of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 1.2 million British expats living in the EU, have been reduced to one of the “main cards” that the government have regularly implied they are willing to trade away. Theresa May’s decision to begin the negotiations on citizens’ rights with an offer significantly below the EU’s demands is sure to prolong the anxiety of millions.
Yet there is one area in which EU citizens may have a post-Brexit advantage.
In 2012, the then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a law demanding that any British citizen with a spouse from outside the EU must earn an annual income of £18,600 or above (or £22,400 when including a child) before their partner can come to live with them. It is estimated that the threshold excludes 41% of the British working population whilst disproportionately penalising women. This places an unjust means-test upon the ability to live with loved ones, and implies that the right to a family life is only available to those who can afford it.
A curious effect of the minimum income requirement is that it makes it comparatively easier for EU citizens to bring non-EU family to live with them. In an ongoing court case, an EU legal advisor stated that the Algerian husband of a woman with dual Spanish-British citizenship had the right to join her in the U.K, due to EU rights that protected her prior to her British citizenship. The EU negotiating team have separately demanded that these rights apply to “current and future family members" even after the divorce or death of the initial right-holder.
It therefore possible that, decades down the line, a descendant from an EU citizen living in the UK could have the truly global access to family life that is denied to the children and grandchildren of non-EU citizens.
Although this is unlikely, the crucial point is that the current dispute over EU citizenship rights has reflected how the failures within our immigration system affect everyone living in Britain.
On Friday the Prime Minister argued that she wanted EU citizens to have the same post-Brexit rights as UK residents, but without the jurisdiction of European courts they would likely be subject to minimum income requirements. When a guarantee of rights has the effect of increasing the number of people at risk of being unjustly denied a life with their family, it is clear that the entire system urgently needs reform.
Labour have and rightly, pledged to unilaterally guarantee repeatedly, the exact continuation of citizenship rights for EU citizens. The manifesto promised to replace income thresholds entirely. This is a very welcome stance.
But can Labour, and all progressives, learn from the protracted ordeal of EU citizens and demand the further reform that is required to place human rights at the centre of our immigration system? Minimum income requirements are just one aspect of the ‘hostile environment’ which Theresa May intentionally created as Home Secretary. If the election taught the left one thing, it is to think big and unapologetically about key issues. The example of EU citizenship rights shows that this approach is desperately needed in order for all British people to have equal access to a family life.
This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.