After the exhilaration of their Brexit referendum win, Gove and Tory Brexiteers are now sobering up and demanding guarantees for the EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit. 

It is not that long ago that Tory Brexit campaigners were screaming for the UK to leave the EU, promising that invaluable EU rights like free movement and access to the EU single market would not be lost. Let’s not forget that the Conservatives’ manifesto also promised access to the single market after Brexit. This now seems like a fake promise. But, people voted to leave, knowing that such rights wouldn’t be questioned. They also voted to leave the EU—but they didn’t vote on the terms of leaving—and that important issues like EU rights would be later negotiated, but never questioned. Now, when the reality of a possibly hard Brexit has set in and Theresa May cannot offer any guarantees, the same people who were celebrating their Brexit win, are now calling for guarantees and asking for a soberer approach. The government has insisted on not giving any assurances yet. Theresa May has said that she won’t guarantee the rights of EU citizens until the other EU member states guarantee the rights of UK nationals residing in these countries. 

On Sunday (5 March), Gove and other MPs from different parties asked Theresa May to guarantee the rights of 3.2 million EU citizens. As members of the Commons select committee on Brexit, they released their second report—“The Government’s negotiating objectives: the rights of UK and EU citizens”—where they argue that the result of the referendum and the subsequent debates in the UK and EU have created uncertainty and anxiety for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU. The committee stressed that the government hasn’t offered “sufficient reassurance that the rights and status that they have enjoyed will be guaranteed.” One of the major concerns for EU citizens in the UK is their ability to continue working in the UK after Brexit. For UK nationals living in other European countries, their main concern is their EU citizenship and the rights to healthcare, pension entitlements and payments that they currently enjoy as EU citizens.

What is The Commons Brexit committee:

The Exiting the EU committee consists of 21 Conservative, Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Democratic Unionist Party members,  is appointed by the House of Commons, and its role is to examine the “expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Exiting the European Union and matters falling within the responsibilities of associated public bodies.”

EU nationals and UK citizens aren’t “bargaining chips”:

The Brexit committee stressed that EU nationals should not be used as “bargaining chips.” The report stated: 

“EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU are aware that their fate is subject to the negotiations. They do not want to be used as bargaining chips, and the uncertainty they are having to live with is not acceptable. Notwithstanding the assurance given by the Home Secretary, we recommend that the UK should now make a unilateral decision to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK.”

The committee expressed that they are going to put pressure, not only on the UK government, but also on the respective governments where UK nationals are living, so questions about their status are resolved. They said that it “is imperative that all parties to the negotiations put the resolution of the rights of all EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU as their first priority.”

Current system of registering EU nationals is “complex and onerous”

The report dismissed the current process, whereby EU nationals apply for permanent residence through an 85-page form and a series of supporting documents, as “too complex and onerous.” Especially, when three million people will be going through such a “disproportionately burdensome” an application process just to prove residence over a 5-year period. They added that the process of establishing EU nationals’ eligibility needs to be streamlined and the Home Office an HMRC can assist by sharing already recorded data. This can and should be resolved before the UK leaves the EU so employers are aware of citizens’ status and right to work in the UK. 

Clearly, as it stands: “The current process for consideration of permanent residency applications is not fit for purpose and, in the absence of any concrete resolution to relieve the anxiety felt by the estimated three million EU citizens resident in the UK, it is untenable to continue with the system”.

EU citizens living in the UK for 5 years

EU citizens who have been living in the UK for 5 years at the point we leave the EU, will have every right to remain: “The Government should make clear that these individuals will be entitled to permanent residence.” 

For those whose applications are rejected, letters “should not be accompanied by the words ‘Prepare to leave the UK’ unless there are grounds for removal because the applicant does not have a right to remain.”

If EU citizens haven’t been living for 5 years in the UK, the committee noted that the government needs to clarify what will happen to them so they qualify for the right to remain under EU law. 

The government would also need to set “a cut-off date” for EU citizens arriving in the UK. While coming into the UK before that date and residing for five years should enable EU nationals to qualify for permanent residence, after that date EU citizens would be unable to acquire permanent residence.

There is also the issue of what kind of rights will continue for those living in the UK with their spouse and children. There are many rules regarding EU nationals in the UK and their family members that need to be clear before Brexit.  

 The Home Office is processing applications for permanent residence very slowly and is rejecting one third of those applications. The report explained that this could amount to one million people. For example, what will happen to all these large numbers of people who have yet to establish permanent residence? These are questions that need to be answered sooner than later, the committee stated. 

The chairman of the Brexit committee, Labour MP Hilary Ben, said about the EU citizens: “They did not have a vote in the referendum, but the result has left them living under a cloud of uncertainty. They are understandably concerned about their right to remain, and their future rights to access education and healthcare.”

House of Lords report

Adding to the immigration complexities post-Brexit and putting more pressure to the government is another report released on Monday by the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee.  The report which is titled Brexit: UK-EU movement of people, warns that controlling immigration may not “deliver a reduction in overall net migration or provide a quick fix for low wages.” The report states that offering preferential treatment to EU nationals in the UK could increase the possibility of securing the status of UK nationals in the EU and improve the UK’s access to the single market. 

Both of these reports are making things more difficult for the PM. As Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said on Saturday, the prime minister is “isolated”: “Whether you campaigned to remain or leave, there’s a growing consensus – including now the House of Lords and the cross-party Brexit select committee – that EU nationals should not be used as bargaining chips. The prime minister needs to listen to this, and act now.”

Today (7 March), peers will be voting on an amendment in the Brexit bill that will require any proposed deal to be both agreed and voted in both houses of parliament before the government submits it to the EU. It is believed to be passed by a large majority, defeating the government for the second time. March is going to be a Brexit month full of currency and emotional volatility.