For EU citizens, the right to stay in Brexit Britain may come too late

I see that even one of the most fervent supporters of the Leave campaign, its biggest donor, agrees with an idea I expressed a couple of months after the Brexit vote: Britain should unilaterally guarantee the rights of European Union citizens already residing here.

In an article for New Europeans (an organisation supporting EU citizens’ rights of whom I am a member) in August I argued that by granting EU citizens in the UK the right to continue to live in the country without any restrictions after it leaves the EU, Britain would be showing the world that it can rise above petty political bickering.

For Prime Minister Theresa May, it would have been a great way to get the upper hand in the negotiations.

Now I see that Peter Hargreaves, the billionaire who donated £3.2 billion to the Leave campaign, believes the same thing: Britain should just go ahead and guarantee the rights of the EU citizens already in the country.

“I just think we should make the gesture, full stop. I don’t think there should be a quid pro quo, I just think we should make the gesture,” he said, according to the Guardian.

He invokes the same argument why it would make sense for Theresa May to do this that I used, back in August last year: “They [the other EU states] would look pretty churlish if they didn’t [reciprocate by guaranteeing the status of UK nationals in the EU].”

It would of course be great if the UK government were to guarantee the rights of EU citizens already here. But the current government cannot do it, at least not if it doesn’t want to alienate all those UKIP voters who changed allegiance to the Conservatives.

A future government, formed after Theresa May’s victory in the June 8 elections (if she does win; there is still a month to go) might be able to pull it through. After all, even Leave supporters cannot argue against the fact that the EU citizens who are now in the UK believed they were going to a fellow EU state when they set off.

The trouble is that, even if the future government guarantees the rights of EU citizens caught out by Brexit, such a measure might still come too late. Since the vote in June last year, Europeans in the UK have faced a hostile bureaucracy when trying to obtain certificates of permanent residence from the Home Office.

In other EU countries, these certificates are very easy to obtain. In Britain, since Brexit, the legislation has changed to add to the bureaucratic burden, not to relieve it. EU citizens will find it hard to believe that the government has suddenly changed its tune.

It is very possible that in the future, skilled migrants will think twice before choosing the UK as their destination. The same goes for bright students. There are already reports that the number of nurses applying for jobs in the UK

Brexit is depriving Britain of the best and the brightest “citizens of the world.” Even if the government does guarantee their right, how can they trust someone who called them “citizens of nowhere”?

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