Campaign group demands UK rights for forgotten Europeans

The citizens' rights watchdog set up to protect the rights of EU nationals living in the UK is conducting its first survey to understand the level of public concern about living in the UK after Brexit. [EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL]

UK civil society activists launched on Tuesday (10 December) a five-pledge ‘Citizens’ Rights manifesto for the 5 million’ demanding voting and citizenship rights for EU citizens two days ahead of a potentially decisive UK general election.

The Citizens’ Rights Manifesto for the 5 million calls for the next UK government to entrench EU nationals’ rights by putting them into primary law, alongside the introduction of an EU Green Card, giving all EU citizens in the UK physical proof of status and Britons in the EU the right to free movement post-Brexit.

It also includes offering free British citizenship to EU nationals, and demands that EU nationals continue to have their rights to vote in local elections.

Roger Casale, the secretary-general of New Europeans, one of the campaign groups working on citizens’ rights, described the treatment of EU nationals and British expats during the Brexit negotiations as a “shameful episode in British history.  And the EU should have done better”.

“Like the suffragettes…I think that nobody cares, or not enough of us care enough to put it right,” he said, adding that “people who made life choices before Brexit should not have them compromised.”

In a campaign dominated by Brexit, the question of what happens to the five million people who are either EU nationals in the UK or their UK counterparts across the EU has been largely ignored.

EU nationals are not permitted to vote in UK general elections, while British expats who have lived abroad for over 15 years are also disenfranchised.

But the anti-migrant rhetoric that dominated the 2016 Brexit referendum has re-emerged. During a Sky News interview on Sunday, Boris Johnson said that EU citizens had been able to “treat the UK as though it’s basically part of their own country”.

The UK government has offered a ‘settled status’ scheme which promises that all EU citizens, their family members, and dependents can remain in the UK with no change to their rights, provided that they have lived here continuously for five years.

The UK’s Home Office has reported that 2.4 million EU nationals have applied for settled status, including half a million in October.

However, 40% of these have only been given pre-settled status – in many cases wrongly – which allows applicants to stay in the UK for five more years, at the end of which they will have to apply again for settled status. The Home Office has also estimated that 5-10% of applicants will have difficulties with the application process.

The complexity and difficulties with the settled status scheme have prompted activists and EU officials to urge the UK government to change tack – either by extending the December 2020 deadline to apply – if the UK Parliament passes the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Johnson – or by moving to a declaratory system removing the risk of forced deportation.

More than 132,000 British expats registered to vote in the 12 December election between 24 October, when the election was called, and the 26 November registration deadline. Before 2015, the total number of overseas registrants had never exceeded 35,000.

However, most of the estimated 1.6 million British people living elsewhere in the EU, and the more than three million EU nationals in the UK will be disenfranchised.

The governing Conservatives have repeatedly promised to scrap the 15-year law, a promise which has been matched by the Liberal Democrats, who are also offering full voting rights for EU nationals. For their part, Labour proposed that all EU nationals should have voting rights but oppose amending the 15 year rule.

“The surge in registrations from overseas voters since 2015 has brought them to record highs,” Michaela Benson, an academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, who leads the Brexit Brits Abroad research project, told EURACTIV.

“The vote for life has historically been led by the Conservative Party. It is notable that the Liberal Democrats manifesto raises the bar on the overseas vote, promising to introduce dedicated political representation for these overseas voters alongside the vote for life,” she added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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