The excitement that had been building up before the Florence speech of UK Prime Minister Theresa May is quickly turning into disappointment. Many had expected the Prime Minister to find a way to unblock the stalled negotiations over Brexit, but the speech, as delivered, was far from achieving that.
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the speech is that it still does not acknowledge a fundamental principle of the European Union: the four freedoms of movement (goods, services capital and people) are indivisible.
May’s speech again ignored this principle. She said she wanted a transition period after the official departure date from the EU, March 29, 2019, of at least two years. In her speech, she called this an “implementation period”, in which “access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms.”
However, conditions for EU citizens coming to work in Britain would be changed. May said that “during the implementation period, people will continue to be able to come and live and work in the UK; but there will be a registration system — an essential preparation for the new regime.”
The problem with this is the same that has always been: imposing restrictions, even in the form of a registration system, on EU citizens would automatically attract restrictions on free movement of goods and services from Britain to the EU. Britain seems determined not to acknowledge this principle.
Union member states must take decisions by consensus, and while some member states could be OK with their citizens having to undergo registration procedures, others may baulk at the idea. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the registration system would go smoothly.
The experience of the two EU member states that were under seven-year transitional restrictions, Bulgaria and Romania, shows that such a system can impose huge bureaucratic burdens on citizens.
To obtain their registration certificates from the Home Office between 2007 and 2014, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens who came to work in Britain had to wait for months and months, despite attempts by the understaffed and overworked department to carry out the procedures as fast as they could. While waiting, they could not work or have access to essential services.
Some EU citizens have already been caught in the UK government’s increasingly hostile policy towards foreigners, which has seen about a hundred people wrongly sent deportation letters and a few even detained in deportation centres.
In her speech, May said: “I want to repeat to the 600,000 Italians in the UK — and indeed to all EU citizens who have made their lives in our country — that we want you to stay; we value you; and we thank you for your contribution to our national life — and it has been, and remains, one of my first goals in this negotiation to ensure that you can carry on living your lives as before.”
Unfortunately, her actions are the exact opposite of her words. The UK government has still not gone back on attempts to take away rights already obtained by EU citizens, which it detailed in the first proposal submitted in the Brexit negotiation. Unless it does, any public declarations ring hollow.