While most focus in the UK-EU Brexit negotiations has been on the money that the UK has to pay in order to meet all its obligations as part of the divorce, there is still no clarity on the rights of European Union citizens to live, work, marry, form partnerships, bring up their children and create a family life after Brexit.
The issue of foreigners arriving in Britain has always been high politics. The first immigration control legislation was the 1902 Aliens Acts. The purpose of this was to stop the arrival of Jews fleeing oppression and poverty in anti-semitic Tsarist Russia.
UK has a history of welcoming foreign workers
Successive immigration and nationality acts followed over the next 90 years. At the same time it is worth recalling that Britain has always depended on foreigners mainly from Europe – not least to ensure a healthy blood line for the royal family – with immigrant kings being imported in the 17th and 18th century to ensure a protestant monarch on the throne.
When Ireland became an independent, sovereign nation after a short, brutal war against England in 1920-21, London made sure that there were no barriers to Irish workers coming to Britain to continue doing low-paid, unskilled work such as building roads and houses.
After 1945, the Labour government invited 200,000 Polish soldiers to stay in the UK to work in mines and to do other arduous jobs where there was a shortage of UK-born labour.
In 1948, Britain started importing West Indian workers for public service jobs in transport or healthcare and then, by the end of the 1950s, the door was opened to Indian, Pakistani, Kashmiri and others from the outposts of the British empire in Asia.
British capitalism has always disliked spending money on training non-management workers
As London took advantage of the Single European Act (1985) and the creation of the Single Market, hundreds of thousands of Europeans arrived to work for the financial and banking sectors. London became the tenth biggest city for French citizens.
British capitalism has always disliked spending money on training non-management workers and was therefore happy to see the arrival of workers from all over post-communist Europe as well as those who arrived after the crash of 2007-08 when young Italians, Spaniards and Greeks flooded into England to find work under the Labour government’s full employment economic model.
EU freedom of movement rules do not apply to state employment, yet the biggest employer of EU citizens was the UK state’s National Health Service. The largest group of EU workers on the 2012 London Olympics construction site were Irish citizens.
EU freedom of movement rules do not apply to state employment
Spain has 1.1 milllion Romanian workers and Germany 1.5 million Poles. Four per cent of the Irish population is Polish compared to 1.7 per cent of the UK population which is Polish.
Immigration the big focus of the Brexit referendum
Yet, for the anti-European Tories, UKIP and even, sadly, some Labour MPs, the number of Europeans working in Britain was unacceptable. The traditional anti-immigrant language was used. There are too many, they take jobs, they take housing, they don’t speak English, they send their children to local schools, they are in hospital and doctors’ waiting rooms, they depress wages. Cliché after cliché rolled out into newspaper headlines and speeches including from some on the Left.
So when the Brexit vote came on 23 June 2016, it was a vote on immigration, on foreigners, on open borders. Theresa May told her Conservative Party conference in October 2015: “The rate of European immigrants arriving in Britain is unsustainable.”
This means that all the bureaucratic apparatus of immigration controls – work and residence permits, perhaps quotas and employers having to obtain administrative permission before offering jobs which will be time limited.
So she now feels that she must reduce numbers who are in Britain and control future arrivals. This means that all the bureaucratic apparatus of immigration controls – work and residence permits, perhaps quotas and employers having to obtain administrative permission before offering jobs which will be time limited.
The Tory government approach is to make life unpleasant for Europeans and to put up a big “NOT WELCOME” notice except on strict bureaucratic conditions.
Many unanswered questions
Labour is saying that those EU citizens already here should stay. In fact, Mrs May is not far from that position. But, while it sounds good, this line does not respond to questions such as: “How long can they stay?” “If they lose a job must they leave the UK? “ “Can they access all social and welfare rights of British citizens?” “Can children of Europeans travel freely between the UK and the country of their parent(s)?” “Can Europeans in the UK marry abroad and bring their wives to live in Britain?” “Can they bring over ageing parents that need to live with their children?”
For many European Union citizens in the UK there is worry and fear about their future status and that of their children.
None of these questions have been answered. The UK Home Office is carrying out a review of immigration rules but there will be no report until autumn 2018, i.e. just before the EU-UK Article 50 negotiations must end ahead of ratification and agreement by the European Parliament and the UK and EU27 governments and parliaments.
For many European Union citizens in the UK there is worry and fear about their future status and that of their children. There are no reliable figures as the UK does not issue ID cards and has no knowledge of who from the rest of Europe lives in the UK.
For the estimated two million British citizens in the EU – again there are no reliable figures – there is worry about whether they will face reciprocal measures.
Of all the ugly aspects of Brexit the worry and fears and potential return to hateful controls on European living or working in Britain is undoubtedly the nastiest.