Time to stop painting the Europeans as the enemy

Britain’s relationship with the European Union is becoming so fraught that even one of the most moderate members of government finds it hard nowadays to use the right words when talking about it.

In an interview last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond said about the EU negotiators: “The enemy, the opponents, are out there, they’re on the other side of the negotiating table. Those are the people we have to negotiate with.”

He quickly apologised in two tweets, saying it was a poor choice of words.

The chancellor is one of the few politicians to own up to a mistake. His Twitter apology is commendable.

But even so, his words once again highlight the deep division that the EU referendum has created not just in the Tory party, but in British society as a whole.

The fact that EU citizens resident in the UK have been and continue to be targets of casual racist remarks or worse show the seriousness of the problem that British society must face: The referendum seems to have given a voice to a very unpleasant minority of views, which blames foreigners for almost anything that goes wrong.

And the fact that the attacks and harassment of EU citizens have not died down more than a year after the referendum is partly the fault of the government.

Right at the start of the negotiations, the EU offered a deal in which, if the UK agreed to maintain the same rights for EU citizens already in Britain, British citizens in the EU would keep theirs. The UK government found that unacceptable, saying this would mean EU citizens would have more rights than UK ones.

The fundamental issue here is, again, migration. UK citizens cannot bring a spouse over from abroad if they earn less than £18,600 a year, whereas the income limit does not apply to EU citizens. This is because, while the British are governed by UK legislation on immigration, EU citizens benefit from EU-wide rights.

The government could resolve this false problem in one stroke, by simply offering the UK citizens the same rights enjoyed by EU citizens. The fact that it does not do that shows that the government has a hard time resolving the differences between its own goals: it wants a deal with the EU, but is unprepared to preserve the rights of the Union’s citizens obtained before Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May said in her speech in Florence that she wants the EU citizens in Britain to stay and continue to contribute. It’s high time she matched words with action. Perhaps a step forward on this would help close some of the divisions in her own party.