THE status of the 3.2 million European Union citizens in the UK has been widely discussed during the Brexit process. But the reality of their lives seems insufficiently understood or cared about, either by politicians or the general public.
Christians, at least, ought to care. This is how it is for one English vicar and his German wife. We started going out in 1995. In the UK, it was the middle of a decade of optimism and hope: we were part of an increasingly diverse and tolerant population. We never thought that the EU was perfect, but, when the Brexit referendum took place in June 2016, we were always going to be “Remainers”.
But “Leave” beat “Remain” by 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent. It instantly shocked and depressed us. “Don’t take it personally,” we were told. But if you live on a bridge, and a majority votes to demolish the bridge, you take it personally. Some of that majority were in my congregation. I tried to ignore that fact, but it was hard.
The winning margin was 1,269,501. That is fewer than the number of EU citizens living in the UK. With exceptions of those from Malta, Cyprus, and Ireland, however, they were not allowed to vote. People such as my wife, resident for more than 20 years, who had paid taxes and contributed to the country, were not allowed to vote, because, as Liam Fox put it, that would be “an unacceptable dilution of the voice of the British people”.
Our lives became marked by insecurity. What of the future? Would we have to move? Should I give up my thoroughly Anglophone vocation and career? If not, would my wife have to apply to stay? Would our two children now need two passports? Could we look after relatives in their old age? What would happen to pension contributions made here if we tried to move? Would our general rights stay the same? Anxiety is exhausting.
The inability to plan with any confidence made work incredibly difficult. Our own relationship suffered.
IT DID not have to be this way. Immediately after the referendum, the Government could have offered a unilateral settlement to EU citizens in the UK which protected their rights. It would almost certainly have forced the EU to reciprocate and would have got negotiations off to the best start. Instead, the Government was consumed by Tory infighting.
By September 2016, EU citizens were described as “one of the main cards” in the negotiations. In May 2017, the EU published an offer of full continuing rights, but the nation was distracted by an unnecessary General Election. When red-faced Conservatives returned to the issue a month later, fine noises were made, but the offer was not matched. Adding insult to injury, “permanent residency”, which some EU nationals had applied for at great expense, is now to be abolished. Instead, everyone will have to apply for “settlement”.
The public, in general, assume that something will be worked out. It is hard to share the optimism. There was no plan on 24 June 2016, and there is still no settled plan. Brexit negotiations are foundering; so “no deal” becomes more likely, and still the Prime Minister, asked three times about EU citizens in her LBC interview last week, offers no guarantees. The Home Office does not inspire confidence: it threatened 100 EU citizens with deportation in August, then said that it was a “mistake”.
IF THE Church has responded by sticking up for EU citizens, I have not noticed. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a cross-party “forum or commission” on Brexit, as though entering a competition to find the most Anglican response possible to a national crisis (News, 30 June).
More telling was the House of Lords debate on Article 50 in March (News, 10 March). An amendment was proposed to ensure continuity in rights for EU citizens. Two bishops (Leeds and Newcastle) voted for it; three — a majority — voted against (London, St Albans, and York).
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that, having voted remain and wishing to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, he was voting against the amendment to trigger Article 50 as quickly as possible — and then the Government could sort out guarantees with Angela Merkel.
This comment was offensive and politically illiterate, and mirrored the rhetoric of UKIP. When challenged during the debate on the “pain, suffering, and uncertainty” for EU nationals, Dr Sentamu argued that he was fulfilling his position “as a legislator”.
The former director of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, now says that triggering Article 50 was a “historic, unforgivable blunder”. All it did was fire the starting gun when the UK was nowhere near ready for the race. That three senior bishops could forget their pastoral instincts in pursuit of such a blunder seems yet another instance of the general madness of the times.
Since the referendum, and the UK’s descent into further faction and confusion, many EU nationals just feel sadness. Even if Brexit never happens, even if a transitional phase stretches out into the distant future, the damage has been done. They will never feel at home here again, where 52 per cent either did not care about their futures or just wanted them out. The country where my wife and I fell in love has gone for ever.
The Revd Graeme Richardson is Vicar of St Peter’s, Harborne, in the diocese of Birmingham.