Any doubts Theresa May had softened her attitude towards EEA migrants was well and truly debunked earlier this week when she stated EU citizens who arrive during the post-Brexit transition period must not have the same rights as those who came before Britain left the bloc.
As Rafael Behr stated in an op-ed piece in The Guardian today, “You can take a Prime Minister from the Home Office, but you just can’t get the Home Office out of the Prime Minister”.
The Prime Minister’s statement has raised concern among London’s best immigration solicitors and caused further uncertainty for EEA nationals living in the UK. Once again, it brings home to EU citizens living in Britain the urgency of obtaining an EU permanent residence Card and, if possible, British citizenship, to protect their existing rights.
Her remarks, made whilst on an official visit to China, also put her on a crash course with Brussels, who have made it emphatically clear that if Britain wants to benefit from a transition period, it must continue to play by EU rules.
What are the British governments current plans for EEA nationals?
The government has stated that EEA nationals who come to the UK before it officially leaves the bloc will be entitled to apply for Settled Status after five years’ residence.
Those who already have an EU permanent residence Card will be able to transfer this to a Settled Status document without any additional cost.
This is likely to resemble the scheme currently in place for non-EEA migrants, which includes mandatory work permits, requirements to register on arrival, restrictions on access to benefits, and the need to meet minimum income requirements to obtain a Spouse/Partner Visa and Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR).
Bowing to pressure from Euro-sceptic back-benchers, which include fierce Brexit advocate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mrs May stated, “What we’re doing now is doing the job that the British people asked the government to do which is to deliver on Brexit. In doing that they did not vote for nothing to change when we come out of the EU.”
This statement appears at odds with Chancellor, Phillip Hammond who said recently the goal was for “very modest changes” post-Brexit.
Will there be “utter chaos” if free movement ends in March 2019?
Following Mrs May’s statement, those campaigning for the rights of EEA nationals, which includes some of London’s best immigration lawyers, warned of “utter chaos” if freedom of movement was to end in 14 months.
Activists argue that everything Mrs May planned for EEA nationals living in the UK would be reciprocated on the 1.2 million UK citizens residing in Europe.
“I think many of us, British living in Europe, are horrified at the ongoing abominable treatment of EU citizens in the UK. This will only contribute further to them and us being fair game for abuse,” said Debra Williams, the head of Brexpats, a campaign group based in the Netherlands told The Guardian.
British in Europe, a campaign group for British nationals in the EU, said its members felt abandoned by May.
“Every time Theresa May rejects an EU proposal on citizens’ rights she has to remember that it has direct repercussions on the rights and lives of 1.2 million British people living on continental Europe. And she is also slamming more doors shut for young British people in the UK itself,” Jane Golding, a lawyer living in Germany, who chairs the group told the media.
According to a newspaper report, EEA citizens in the UK are equally horrified by the proposal to end free movement abruptly come March 2019. They believe with no system in place, hospitals, social welfare and immigrations officials will have no way of distinguishing between those who have been in the country legally up to 29th March 2019 and new arrivals.
However, EEA nationals can take comfort in the general opinion that the British Prime Minister has once again picked a fight with the EU that she cannot win. George Eaton, in an op-ed piece in the New Statemen, reminds us:
“In Phase One of the Brexit talks, the UK was forced to accept a £35-39bn Divorce bill, European Court of Justice oversight of EU citizens' rights (until 2027) and “full regulatory alignment” in the absence of a new solution to the Irish border problem; what the EU wanted, the EU got. In Phase Two, Brussels will, if anything, be even more stringent in enforcing its rules. Britain cannot expect to maintain the benefits of single market and customs union membership during the transition while simultaneously restricting immigration rights.”
Mr Eaton’s opinion seems to be supported by the EU Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU parliament's Brexit coordinator, said in response to Mrs May’s statement regarding EEA nationals’ rights after Brexit: “Citizens’ rights during the transition is not negotiable. We will not accept that there are two sets of rights for EU citizens. For the transition to work, it must mean a continuation of the existing acquis with no exceptions.”
Theresa May is stuck between a rock and a hard place. By committing to a soft-Brexit, which is what the business community, financial sector and EEA nationals want, she risks alienating the Tory back-benchers who want to completely severe the UK’s ties with the trade and customs union. And unfortunately, getting on the wrong side of the Westminster anti-EU brigade could cost her the PM position. And Mrs May made clear after the 2017 election debacle, where she lost the Conservative Party’s majority, that she has no intention of losing the top job.
Especially at the expense of foreign nationals.
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Posted on: Friday, 02 February, 2018