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Bravo, Boris. Now turn words on EU citizens into action!

by Sebastian O’Meara | 30.10.2017

Well, well. Boris Johnson has finally made a useful contribution to the Brexit debate. His referendum campaign bombast was followed by a long period of uncharacteristic silence, punctuated by the occasional gaffe. Emboldened by an election result that gave him – if not his party – a lifeline, he raised his head above the parapet in September with his tract in the Daily Telegraph describing the sunlit uplands that await mighty Global Britain post-Brexit.

This time is different, perhaps. Speaking to a Poland-UK forum the foreign secretary made a clear commitment to the one million Poles currently living in the UK – and by extension we have to assume, to the 2 million citizens of other EU countries also living here. “Your rights will be protected whatever happens,” he said, before checking that his words were being recorded and repeating them, lest anyone think he had “misspoken”.

Downing Street’s gloss was: “In his inimitable way Boris Johnson was simply reiterating the prime minister’s personal commitment to put citizens’ rights first, to make that her immediate priority.” But of course the foreign secretary actually said something completely different from anything his boss has said. For all her talk of “generous offers” to EU citizens in the UK, she envisages these rights being a matter for negotiation with the other 27 countries. 

The big question is whether Johnson truly means what he says and what he can do to deliver it. On the first count there is reason for hope. There is no doubt that the foreign secretary has form when it comes to saying positive things about immigration, so this wasn’t completely a bolt from the blue.

But a lot of time has passed since those heady days when, as Mayor of London, he declared himself pro-immigration and argued for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. While the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment that he rode in the referendum campaign may not have been of his making, only at the very end – in reacting to Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster – did he suggest he was less than comfortable with it.

This latest intervention sits more comfortably with Boris Johnson’s true feelings on the subject than his nativist diatribe in the Daily Telegraph, complete with disturbing denunciations of transnational allegiances. But the only way we can be sure is if he delivers.

Making a speech is a good start. But it’s still only a start. So come on, Boris: strike while the iron’s hot. Don’t let the idea die. Rather than needle your boss about your red lines for a possible transition deal, persuade her that you’re right on this and make it happen.

A lot of people will thank you. Not just the 3 million EU citizens in the UK whose lives have been turned upside down by the referendum; making a grand gesture on this topic could also help unblock the overall Brexit talks.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “Bravo, Boris. Now turn words on EU citizens into action!”

  • Nice words from Boris on protecting Polish expats, but are they more to do with good PR for Boris, and is he really on the same page as his colleagues Davis and the PM? The PM has similarly made encouraging words about EU expats rights in Florence, but when recently asked about progress in Brussels, Davis said we had got about as far as we can at this stage. i.e. without a definitive agreement on citizens rights. What that actually may mean, reading between the lines, is that citizens rights could be brought into the wider negotiation alongside other agenda items, such as a trade deal or the financial settlement. In other words, used as “bargaining chips”. This would be a quite shameful tactic to use on innocent people who moved in good faith under the EU treaties. It would also be futile as the EU politicians and European Parliament have been quite clear that citizens rights are their first priority, and the support of both are needed before any deal can be concluded.

  • Boris Johnson’s main problem is that, having been dismissed from employment twice for blatant dishonesty, he is a confirmed liar.

  • Well, nice of him to state unequivocally that EU ex-pats rights are guaranteed, but unless it’s down in black and white, it means little. This is just another step along the long twisty road of Boris’ career path. But maybe Theresa will take note and jump on the bandwagon and make it all official policy.