EU citizens in the UK: Second class

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Theresa May wants to create a hierarchy of locals versus 'foreigners' through a discriminatory ID card system whereby EU citizens will have to carry their identity papers around with them while “indigenous” Brits will not. [Screengrab/10 Downing Street]

No more immigration from the EU is one of the UK government’s invented red lines for the Brexit negotiations. But what to do with those who have already immigrated? The UK’s current proposal provides few satisfactory answers, warns Peter Sellar.

Peter Sellar is an advocate with ScotEUC, Scotland’s EU Consultancy.

It is, as we all know, a thorny issue but one which is uppermost in EU negotiators’ minds. The mandate that the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has from the 27 member states is to sequence the Brexit talks beginning with the rights of UK citizens in the EU and of EU citizens in the UK.

The Commission issued its position paper in that regard in May 2017. It is four pages long but rather dense in that it refers to a series of Regulations and Directives which it is seeking to grandfather in terms of the rights and obligations that EU/UK citizens will continue to enjoy on Brexit day #1. It is, nevertheless, easy to read because it is easy to understand the core message: nothing much should change.

It is also easy to understand because at its heart is the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Its starting and end point is this: EU citizens in the UK are to be treated equally with UK citizens and UK citizens in the EU (say, in France) are to be treated equally with French citizens.

And this is where the UK’s 22-page offering as published on 27 June 2017 sits at odds with the EU.

The principle that lies at its core is not equality as between UK citizens and EU citizens living in the UK but equality as between EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU.

As the organisation called “The British in Europe” notes, “at no point in the document is there any mention of an overarching right of equal treatment for EU citizens in the UK vis-à-vis British citizens in the UK”.

By taking this approach, using a different matrix of comparators, the UK is therefore suggesting that a whole new set of rules and regulations are to be created. It is the stark opposite of the EU’s proposed “same as” approach. The UK approach can be boiled down to this: as long as we treat EU citizens in the UK as badly or as well as our UK citizens are treated in the EU, then that is fair.

Which obviously begs the question: how badly or well do we want them treated?

Depending on which new civilian status category one falls in as an EU citizen in the UK, it seems that there are all sorts of ramifications and changes down the line. If you are an EU citizen who has been here for more than five years and thus have a right to permanent residency, you are now being offered something called “settled status”, with continuing rights to pensions health, education, social security etc. This sounds good but a brief scratch of the surface reveals at least two negatives, even for this privileged set of EU foreigners.

Firstly, the EU citizen will have no UK-based voting rights. None in council elections or in another Scottish independence referendum for example.

Secondly, the UK position makes no reference to an EU citizen’s right to work. Imagine then that s/he loses their current employee job. Will s/he be able to apply for other jobs as they have been able to do before? Or is this UK government formulating a policy whereby, even if you are of “settled status”, you will be second in any jobs queue?

In other words, a Swiss style offer of a job to a Brit first, failing which and only failing which then to a foreigner such as the EU citizen of settled status? Is this what we are building up to? The UK’s offer is worryingly silent on this.

There are many more pitfalls and questions and doubts much more ably described by others. Suffice to say, the UK’s offer is a complex one which differs substantially and substantively from the EU’s offer.

But one critical point has been overlooked by many. In the UK, there is no tradition of identity cards, unlike in many of the EU-27. It was hotly debated at some point earlier this century but discarded for a variety of liberal and cost reasons.

The problem with the UK’s offering is this: it creates a discriminatory ID card system whereby EU citizens will have to carry their identity papers around with them while “indigenous” Brits will not. Something that was rejected as being illiberal only a few years ago has now been officially considered fair for a section of society.

In my opinion, to require that second-class (for wont of a better description) citizens carry papers so that the State can identify them is a slippery slope which ends in a place that history need not remind us. For that is the whole reason why the EU exists. Alas, it appears that the UK government has opened this particular Pandora’s box without using the benefit of hindsight.

I fear where this may go.

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