Theresa May still won’t give a hard guarantee that EU citizens living here can stay. The prime minister seems worried that such a unilateral gesture would leave British citizens living in other EU countries vulnerable to expulsion.
But it would be morally repellent for either us or other EU countries to kick out each other’s citizens. We’d never carry out such a threat. Nor would they. So there’s nothing to lose from saying now that we wouldn’t dream of doing so.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee is the latest body to say that EU citizens “should not be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations.”
But May, at a press conference in Rome on July 27 with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, would only say:
“I want to be able to guarantee their rights in the UK, I expect to be able to do that, I intend to be able to do that, to guarantee their rights. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens living in other EU member states were not guaranteed. But I hope that this is an issue we can address early on.”
This is, admittedly, an advance on the prime minister’s position when she was still running to become Tory leader. Then she gave the impression that she would be prepared to use the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain as pawns in the wider negotiation of our exit terms. After all, a tit-for-tat expulsion might seem to hurt the EU more than us: only 1.2 million Brits live full time in the rest of the bloc.
However, such a mass repatriation would turn Britain into an international pariah. It would guarantee the ugliest of divorces from the EU, thwacking our economy and making it next to impossible to cooperate with our former partners on fighting terrorism, climate change and a host of other common problems.
Expelling EU citizens would also damage our public services and economy directly. One in 11 doctors comes from the EU. So do lots of nurses, scientists and bankers, not to mention less skilled workers.
Such a drastic policy would also not be acceptable to the vast majority of Brits. Even Vote Leave was adamant during the referendum campaign that EU citizens already here should stay. It said: “There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK.”
May would be wise to recognise all this now and guarantee that anybody who is already settled in Britain will be allowed to stay with no loss of rights – and then ask for a similar gesture from EU countries towards our citizens. Apart from removing a cloud of uncertainty hanging over 3 million people, it would show that Britain values their contribution to our national life. It would also generate goodwill in advance of the tough negotiations ahead.
Edited by Michael Prest