Various sources report Theresa May will announce the end of free movement for new EU migrants in March. I find this terribly depressing. My family exists because of free movement. In 2002, I moved to an EEA country, because I could, and to see how things would turn out with someone I’d met and who subsequently became my wife. I was – as now – a freelance writer, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t need a visa. I didn’t need a job and a work permit. I just showed up, lived, worked, paid my taxes, and so on. After a while, we switched countries and moved to the UK.
Now, we’ve no idea what the future holds in the country of my and my child’s birth. The government has at varying turns suggested it would guarantee residency rights for EU and/or EEA nationals. But then there have been various caveats tossed into the ring: EU27 specifically (i.e. not necessarily EEA/Swiss); only those making “full” use of rights (i.e. in work); residency only (i.e. not necessarily including access to healthcare, making staying unviable for many and problematic for a great many more); and residency only for those who meet the UK’s arbitrary earnings threshold. Additionally, those people wishing to secure residency or citizenship have found the process opaque and in some cases blocked by broadly unknown technicalities.
It’s not a good time for those of us in this situation.
But while this kind of story is already somewhat in the public consciousness, I do wonder how many Brits – and especially those who voted to leave the EU – realise this cuts both ways. I’ve seen various surveys that show a huge disconnect in the way British people see immigration. Such surveys asked British people whether EEA nationals should have the right to settle in the UK, which met with a broadly negative response. The same people were asked whether British people should have the right to settle in the EEA, at which point the majority view switched. It probably doesn’t help that language in the media and beyond for years has referred to Brits overseas as ‘ex-pats’, as thought they are somehow different from other immigrants.
They are not, and this is something the UK is going to become very suddenly aware of. Because when we are free from freedom of movement, that adversely affects the British too. Had your eye on retiring in Spain? Tough. Fancied moving to Sweden, just because you could? Too bad. Got kids hankering after university in Germany or the Netherlands? Best hunker down with a pile of paperwork for visas and hope for the best.
I mentioned this on Twitter earlier, wondering at what point we’re going to see the Daily Mail and co. recognise this problem, and scream about “EU SPITE” regarding their readership’s rights to reside overseas suddenly evaporating. Someone noted Daily Mail readers were up in arms on day one. One political commentator I follow online also mentioned a while back that a Conservative MP in a Commons debate said many Brits want to retire to Spain, and this “important right” should be retained – all while his party was dismantling the regulations that make such movement possible.
And yet for some Brexiters, even none of this is a concern. They slam residents here for not taking citizenship (even if many cannot, for various reasons), and note that British people have for years been able to move, live, work, study, and love in countries beyond the EEA. The movement point is of course true, but freedom of movement within the EEA was broadly about security and ease. It didn’t come attached with massive costs and administrative burdens, the immediate threat of deportation if you lost employment, the limitation of a single country, and a lack of security on your status always looming in the background.
Brexiters like to think that without immigrants, the UK will suddenly revert to some kind of glorious age – but they’re wrong. (And which age? That halcyon moment never existed anyway.) They also think that the British will benefit when freedom of movement is abolished, and that this doesn’t come with any downsides. They’re wrong about those things too.