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Brexit is personal: The human cost of two years in limbo.



Two years ago today, 51.9% of the participating UK electorate voted to leave the European Union, out of a turnout of 72.2%. EU citizens living in Britain and many British citizens in the EU had no say in the consultation despite being the most affected by the decision.


Two years — a long time to live in limbo. But that is exactly what has been the reality for approximately 3.7 million EU citizens in the UK like me, and over a million Britons who made their homes in other EU countries. For us Brexit is not primarily about trade deals or who has the upper hand in negotiations. Instead, it is intensely personal because we are those most immediately affected by it.


We were from the get-go: EU citizens in the UK, and many Britons who live in EU countries, had no vote in the EU referendum itself. And since then we have been on a continuous downward spiral.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Theresa May made clear that EU citizens in the UK — and hence our rights — would be made part of the negotiations💬. Not only that: we later learned that Mrs May actively stopped the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron from giving us a unilateral guarantee of our rights. Now we are meant to trust her to have our best interests at heart.

True to her words and those actions, we were made bargaining chips as soon as Mrs May took office. This happened under the pretext that it was necessary to protect the rights of Britons in another EU country. That was always a lie. Mrs May had many opportunities to secure all our rights. Setting the positive precedent of a unilateral rights’ guarantee for EU citizens in the UK was one. Agreeing to the EU’s proposals, which guaranteed the rights of both groups, was one. Supporting any of the proposals to safeguard our rights discussed in the UK Parliament was one. While the UK government continues to say otherwise, our rights are not a priority and have never been. All we are now, EU citizens in the UK and Britons in EU countries, is collateral in Brexit.


For EU citizens in the UK, the planned post-Brexit status — settled status — is based on an application process that will basically force us to apply for losing rights. We are set, for instance, to lose the right to vote in local elections. A criminal records’ check will be part of the process even though we are all here legally now. Neither marriage to a British person nor length of residence in the country will make a difference.


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Worst of all: the loss of some rights is the ‘best case scenario’. As settled status is an application process rather than a registration, some of us will fall through the cracks and fail to get this status. Details on the scheme released earlier this week certainly failed to provide reassurance. That is all the more worrying because of the plan to implement settled status largely through secondary legislation — parliamentary scrutiny is not required for this, so makes it possible to change this quickly — leaves us at the mercy of the attitudes of future governments.


At a practical level there is no end to the UK government’s shambolic handling of the situation. In light of the practices and errors rates of the Home Office, consider for example the recent Windrush scandal, we cannot have confidence that our rights will be secure. For citizens from EEA countries and Switzerland, there is even less certainty.

For Britons in EU countries the situation also remains difficult, especially because many of their concerns, particularly the question of ongoing freedom of movement — critical in the lives of many because they work and live across countries — have not yet been resolved.


The biggest challenge for both EU citizens in the UK and Britons in EU countries is now that many politicians and wider society have bought into the spin that the question of our rights is settled — it is not! There is also still the threat of ‘no deal’, in the event of which all draft agreements made would become meaningless. This would be catastrophic, especially for EU citizens in the UK given that Theresa May has already repeatedly refused to confirm that our rights are secure in the event of ‘no deal’.


So now, two years on and with only a few months left to resolve these problems, many of us have reached the end of our strength. The simple reality is this: even if Brexit is stopped tomorrow, what happened to us over the last two years cannot be undone.


People deserve to be put before politics. The limbo for five million lives — it must end. So, I call on the UK government and the EU to abandon the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ for citizens’ rights, guarantee our rights as they stand now, and ring-fence that agreement. It is the only right — the only human — thing to do.🔷



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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)


(Cover: Dreamstime/JNPAQUET Media Ltd - Anti-Brexit protesters near the House of Parliament, calling for a people’s vote to stop Brexit. Palace of Westminster.)


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Professor of History & Faculty Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Knowledge Exchange. Faculty of Arts Design & Social Sciences, Northumbria University. Migration & diaspora history. Anti-Brexit campaigner.
Newcastle, UK. Website

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