As The Islander closed for press it seems that we are a few days away from British PM Theresa May triggering the infamous Article 50, and starting the two year countdown clock that will end with Britain’s exit from the European Union.
There is, of course much to be discussed, argued over, compromised on and untangled during that time, and no doubt for many years after, but one that has already grabbed more than a few headlines is the future status of British citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens residing in the UK. It is regrettable, but it looks like the lives and futures of millions of people will end up as a bargaining chip in the upcoming negotiations.
Let’s talk figures for a moment. There are estimated to be 1.3 million Brits living in the EU, 320 thousand in Spain, 250k in Ireland, 170k in France and so on. On the flip side. 2.9 million EU citizens live in the UK, with the Polish and Irish topping the tables, there are around 300k Spaniards, and up to 400k French citizens live in London alone, making it France’s sixth largest city…sort of.
Behind each statistic is a person, a mortgage, a job, a business, a pension, a kid in school. Many of these statistics have married and started families with citizens of their new countries, or were born to foreign parents. Each story is different, and must be treated on a case by case basis, that is millions of cases to be documented, evaluated and resolved by the likely Brexit date of March 2019. It has been estimated that at the current rate, it would take more than 70 years to process the cases of EU residents in the UK alone. Technically on day Brexit +1 anyone who hasn’t, for whatever reason got the right bits of paper in the right place as seems likely, will technically be residing illegally. This goes for the UK, for Spain, or anywhere in the EU. Nobody seriously expects people to be rounded up and deported, but it leaves a potentially huge number of people in limbo.
The British government while debating the triggering of article 50 had the opportunity to set the tone for the coming years of debate by unilaterally protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK, hopeful of reciprocal deals with the rest of the EU. After some speedy politics they declined to do so, the home secretary suggesting that it would be giving away ‘negotiating capital’. Indeed there have already been cases of British born EU foreign nationals being told to prepare to leave despite living in the UK for their entire lives.
Part of the problem of being a ‘bargaining chip’ is that historically negotiations with the EU over many issues over many decades have quite literally gone to the last minute, with deals done at 3am in the meeting rooms of the European parliament. It would be folly to think that these deals are likely to be any different.
It’s not just about the ‘foreign’ residents. All over the EU there are companies that rely heavily on immigrants among their workforce. In the UK the National Health Service employs nearly 100,000 EU nationals, the hospitality and agriculture sectors are also heavily reliant. Every sector from fruit pickers to investment banks employ these ‘bargaining chips’ in large numbers. They too are in limbo the longer this remains unresolved. You cannot run a business, or a life, or plan a future with this sword of Damocles hanging over you, and by choosing not to protect the residency rights of EU citizens the British government has already begun to lose control of the situation.
In Spain UK citizens own 110,000 properties, nearly 60,000 are employed or self employed, there are more than 100,000 UK pensioners permanently resident, for whom everything from tax rates to entitlement to work, welfare and healthcare are all likely to be unclear until the 11th hour of negotiations, a situation that is multiplied all over the EU.
The more we examine Brexit the more layers of complexity, and unintended consequences are revealed, and regardless of whether you voted to leave, or stay, or in many cases were not entitled to vote at all this is looking like a bureaucratic nightmare of epic proportions, with just over 730 days to sort it all out. It’s going to be an expensive and chaotic process that sadly has the potential to disrupt an awful lot of innocent peoples lives along the way, and we’ve only just begun.