Last week saw the first government pronouncement on the impact of Brexit upon citizens’ rights after a year defined by uncertainty for the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million expats living in Europe. Yet despite the titular promise to finally “safeguard” the rights of these citizens, the proposal falls short in many crucial areas - creating a credibility gap that Labour must be prepared to fill.
The proposed “settled status” system was met with disappointment from negotiators, campaigners and citizens alike, with Michel Barnier calling for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees.” As well as making the cut-off date up for debate, the key difference is that whilst the EU wishes to guarantee the exact continuation of rights for UK citizens, the UK demands the incorporation of both groups into the framework of British law. This would result in a reduction of current rights, such as freedom of movement and the ability to emigrate with a family member.
The decision to intentionally begin negotiations with a proposal significantly under the EU’s offer is guaranteed to extend the protracted anxiety of millions. The fact that those who are most affected could not vote for Brexit, and that 77% of leave voters supported letting EU migrants stay, means that ensuring continued residence is a matter of moral urgency. Gambling with the lives of those who have most to lose from the negotiations is as needless as it is damaging.
Much of the outcry has centred around the proposals’ lack of “detail and clarity” regarding exactly how rights would be protected. The government document is littered with vague language prefixing essential rights, such as the hazy promise to “seek to protect” healthcare rights. It is unclear why the government would wish to leave themselves such legal wriggle room in their “serious and generous offer” to secure the rights of 4 million individuals.
The proposal does have some welcome elements, particularly the commitment to drop the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance and the indication that applying for settled status will be as “light touch” as possible.
However, this will only form the tip of the bureaucratic mountain of immigration protocol that the Brexit select committee recently labelled as “disproportionately burdensome.” The government must expand on this commitment if they are to shake off the suspicion that their immigration system is designed to deter, rather than to control.
Much of the impasse stems from the mistrust with which Europe sees the UK’s immigration system, which is hardly unwarranted given Theresa May’s creation of a “hostile environment” as Home Secretary, and her government’s pointless, divisive drive towards reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”. The UK’s particularly harsh spousal migration policy has been at the centre of disputes, as it provides a tangible example of how British law would reduce the rights of EU and UK citizens living abroad.
Following the government’s proposal, Labour has a clear opportunity to become the party of a logical and humane Brexit.
To ensure this, Labour must continue its year-long campaign to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of rights for EU citizens, a stance that has been vindicated by the EU’s mirror offer for UK citizens.
Where the government seeks to hide behind technicalities and vague language, Labour must be unequivocal and robust in its assurances of citizens’ rights.
Above all, Labour must escalate its brave commitment to sweeping immigration reform that saw the manifesto promise to scrap the aforementioned spousal migration threshold. By recognising that we are at a moment of national reflection, Labour can maximise its newfound position of strength to push for an immigration system that is universally fit for purpose in a post-Brexit world.
This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.