Reading between the lines of Theresa May’s Christmas 2017 letter to EU citizens

Theresa May’s written to the 3 million. Again. She’s even finally mentioned the EEA/Swiss nationals living in the UK. A positive step? Perhaps. But I can’t help feeling you should read between the lines…

As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I am proud that more than three million EU citizens have chosen to make your homes and livelihoods here in our country.

Although not enough to unilaterally guarantee your rights over the past year and a half, nor stop my ministers referring to you – and using you – as bargaining chips at various points.

I greatly value the depth of the contributions you make – enriching every part of our economy, our society, our culture and our national life.

But especially the taxes you pay.

I know our country would be poorer if you left and I want you to stay.

And I mean that literally. As in, money.

So from the very beginning of the UK’s negotiations to leave the European Union I have consistently said that protecting your rights – together with the rights of UK nationals living in EU countries – has been my first priority.

Which is why it’s only taken a year and a half to cobble together this deal to protect some of your existing rights.

You made your decision to live here without any expectation that the UK would leave the EU. So I have said that I want you to be able carry on living your lives as before.

Even though the deal that we’ve reached doesn’t actually enable you to carry on living your lives as before.

But I know that on an issue of such significance for you and your families, there has been an underlying anxiety which could only be addressed when the fine details of some very complex and technical issues had been worked through and the foundations for a formal agreement secured.

Or we could have just unilaterally guaranteed your rights, but we had no bargaining chips of our own, so three million of you had to do.

‘When we leave the European Union, you will have your rights written into UK law.’

Which we can change on a whim. Good luck!

So I am delighted that in concluding the first phase of the negotiations that is exactly what we have achieved.

Read the fine print is all I’m saying.

The details are set out in the Joint Report on progress published on Friday by the UK government and the European Commission.

When we leave the European Union, you will have your rights written into UK law. This will be done through the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill which we will bring forward after we have completed negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement itself.

So: no rights for you unless all this goes through. Good job everything doesn’t hinge on a few dozen of my most rabid backbenchers, and the whims of the DUP!

Your rights will then be enforced by UK courts. Where appropriate, our courts will pay due regard to relevant ECJ case law, and we have also agreed that for a period of eight years – where existing case law is not clear – our courts will be able to choose to ask the ECJ for an interpretation prior to reaching their own decision.

We know you wanted lifelong rights here, but we realised we could throw UK citizens in the EU under the bus to get the EU to compromise. Which is a win-win for me.

So as we take back control of our laws,

Oops. My UKIP klaxon just went off. Sorry about that.

you can be confident not only that your rights will be protected in our courts, but that there will be a consistent interpretation of these rights in the UK and in the European Union.

For eight years. Unless we change our minds. Or none of this happens anyway. In which case, your guess is as good as mine.

We have agreed with the European Commission that we will introduce a new settled status scheme under UK law for EU citizens and their family members, covered by the Withdrawal Agreement.

If you already have five years of continuous residence in the UK at the point we leave the EU – on 29 March 2019 – you will be eligible for settled status.

Probably. If you’re not paying taxes, some of my ministers have said we might actually tell you to naff off, but then people who don’t pay taxes aren’t really human anyway, are they?

And if you have been here for less than five years you will be able to stay until you have reached the five year threshold.

Unless you’re not paying taxes, in which case we’re considering reserving the right for Boris Johnson to catapult you across the English Channel using a giant trebuchet.

As a result of the agreement we have reached in the negotiations, with settled status, your close family members will be free to join you here in the UK after we have left the EU.

For a bit.

This includes existing spouses, unmarried partners, children, dependent parents and grandparents, as well as children born or adopted outside of the UK after 29th March 2019.

Ish.

Your healthcare rights, pension and other benefit provisions will remain the same as they are today. This means that those of you who have paid into the UK system – and indeed UK nationals who have paid into the system of an EU Member State – can benefit from what you have put in and continue to benefit from existing co-ordination rules for future contributions.

More or less.

We have also agreed to protect the rights of those who are in a cross-border situation at the point of our withdrawal and entitled to a UK European Health Insurance Card. This includes, for example, tourists for the duration of their stay, students for the duration of their course and UK nationals resident in another EU Member State.

Although you are of course all Citizens of Nowhere, and I’d sooner you never darkened our shores again.

The agreement we have reached includes reciprocal rules to protect existing decisions to recognise professional qualifications – for example for doctors and architects.

Someone told me the other day that all the doctors are leaving.

And it also enables you to be absent from the UK for up to five years without losing your settled status – more than double the period allowed under current EU law.

We really wanted this to be two years, but the EU said “non”. Bally foreigners.

There will be a transparent, smooth and streamlined process to enable you to apply for settled status from the second half of next year.

Because British IT projects are the epitome of streamlined, robust, and reliable.

It will cost no more than applying for a passport.

Sidebar: suggest raising the price of British passports next year to £500.

And if you already have a valid permanent resident document you will be able to have your status converted to settled status free of charge.

Although a valid permanent resident document must be one signed by The Queen, hand delivered by The Queen, and submitted while The Queen stands by your side being Queenlike.

We are also working closely with Switzerland and EEA Member States to ensure their citizens in the UK also benefit from these arrangements.

Someone reminded me last week that these places existed.

I have spent many hours discussing these issues with all of the other 27 EU leaders over the last eighteen months as well as with President Juncker, President Tusk and the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. I am confident that when the European Council meets later this week it will agree to proceed on this basis. And I will do everything I can to ensure that we do.

So right now, you do not have to do anything at all.

Trust us!

You can look forward, safe in the knowledge that there is now a detailed agreement on the table

Although only currently on the table, and not in law.

in which the UK and the EU have set out how we intend to preserve your rights – as well as the rights of UK nationals living in EU countries.

Unless they wanted free movement. But then only Citizens of Nowhere want that.

For we have ensured that these negotiations put people first.

Albeit 18 months late.

That is what I promised to do and that is what I will continue to do at every stage of this process.

Although not to the point of having the Home Office right now stop enforcing CSI in a manner the EU vehemently disagrees with, because that would be too easy.

I wish you and all your families a great Christmas and a very happy New Year.

In limbo.

December 12, 2017. Read more in: Politics

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A response to Theresa May’s letter to EU citizens

Theresa May has written to EU citizens. Well, I say written to EU citizens. It’s worth delving into the letter, so you can see precisely the way this government thinks.

As I travel to Brussels today, I know that many people will be looking to us – the leaders of the 28 nations in the European Union – to demonstrate we are putting people first.

As she travels to Brussels today, it’s worth noting she sent this letter to the press first, to get decent PR at home, only later sending it to the people it’s addressed to. As for putting people first, she’s right there if she means Brexiters and/or her government. Not so much EU citizens, whose rights she could have unilaterally guaranteed last year.

I have been clear throughout this process that citizens’ rights are my first priority.

As many commentators have noted, the use of ‘clear’ usually means the opposite.

And I know my fellow leaders have the same objective: to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU.

In the UK’s case, by removing existing rights, and also by refusing to guarantee even the right to reside in the event the UK leaves the EU with no deal.

I want to give reassurance that this issue remains a priority, that we are united on the key principles, and that the focus over the weeks to come will be delivering an agreement that works for people here in the UK, and people in the EU.

Reassurance means nothing. These are empty words. EU citizens have been living in limbo since the referendum. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: many thousands have already decided to the leave the UK, taking their skills, taxes and families (often including British nationals) with them.

When we started this process, some accused us of treating EU nationals as bargaining chips.

Apart from Liam Fox. Although May is technically accurate here, because he referred to them as cards in a poker hand rather than bargaining chips. Much better!

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Oops. Actually, almost everything is further from the truth. See above.

EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK have made a huge contribution to our country.

Which May, her cronies, and the British press continue on a daily basis to erode in people’s minds, by positioning EU citizens as simultaneously taking all the jobs that ‘should’ go to British people, and taking all the benefits they can possibly carry in their gnarled and evil EU citizen claws.

And we want them and their families to stay.

Except her government is continuing to push against family reunion rights, and is looking towards ‘equalising’ how migration works regarding the abhorrent income barrier (if you don’t earn over £18,600, bye); also, Amber Rudd helpfully noted that “maybe” those EU citizens who are unemployed won’t be able to stay. So the inference is even the unemployed spouse of an employed person here (British, EU or other) won’t necessarily be able to remain in the UK – despite May saying she wants them to.

The language is important here – as with a lot of Brexit guff, it’s about aspiration, rather than actions.

I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay.

Lawfully.

But this agreement will not only provide certainty about residence, but also healthcare, pensions and other benefits. It will mean that EU citizens who have paid into the UK system – and UK nationals into the system of an EU27 country – can benefit from what they’ve put in. It will enable families who have built their lives together in the EU and UK to stay together. And it will provide guarantees that the rights of those UK nationals currently living in the EU, and EU citizens currently living in the UK will not diverge over time.

An entire paragraph of not awful. Hurrah! Although this all depends on the caveats already mentioned – and those I suspect are about to come. (I’m reading this for the first time now, by the way. Here’s hoping for exciting shock twists and a happy ending. I’m going to be disappointed, aren’t I?)

What that leaves us with is a small number of important points to finalise. That is to be expected at this point in negotiations. We are in touching distance of agreement. I know both sides will consider each other’s proposals for finalising the agreement with an open mind.

Probably accurate, if you mean “will approach the proposals with venom, and throw up roadblocks much like a cat spewing hairballs all over the carpet”. (The EU’s not perfect here either, note. The one actually quite smart thing the UK’s suggested – dropping a two-year maximum absence from the UK to retain settled status, for Brits in the EU to retain free movement within the EU – was spurned.)

And with flexibility and creativity on both sides, I am confident that we can conclude discussions on citizens’ rights in the coming weeks.

Meaning: do what we want, or we will have the press say failure is entirely your fault for being inflexible in not bending to our every whim.

I know there is real anxiety about how the agreement will be implemented.

But don’t care.

People are concerned that the process will be complicated and bureaucratic, and will put up hurdles that are difficult to overcome.

Probably because existing processes are unnecessarily complicated and bureaucratic, and put up hurdles that are difficult to overcome.

I want to provide reassurance here too.

Here we go.

We are developing a streamlined digital process

Because those never go wrong in the UK.

for those applying for settled status in the UK in the future. This process will be designed with users in mind,

As opposed to, say, people who aren’t using it.

and we will engage with them every step of the way.

COMPUTER SAYS NO.

We will keep the cost as low as possible – no more than the cost of a UK passport.

An actually good thing. Although I’m hoping this means people applying from scratch; otherwise, it goes against an earlier suggestion that moving from PR to settled status wouldn’t cost anything.

The criteria applied will be simple, transparent and strictly in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement. People applying will not have to account for every trip they have taken in and out of the UK and will no longer have to demonstrate Comprehensive Sickness Insurance as they currently have to under EU rules.

There’s disagreement about CSI, but legal experts on Twitter have told me that either the UK could drop CSI as a block to PR right now, or at least remove the existing requirement. The EU’s long contended anyone with access to the NHS qualifies for CSI. But the UK Home Office disagrees, which means many EU citizens seeking PR (required for citizenship) do not qualify unless they have comprehensive sickness insurance.

The snag: almost no-one knew about this, and the Home Office helpfully doesn’t explain the specifics of what qualifies for CSI. So it’s a lottery of sorts, and an intentional block, to stop people who haven’t been working for the past five years from being able to stay.

The British government could change this right now, but chooses not to. Bear that in mind when you hear May and co. banging on about wanting people to stay. Again, the inference is “we want people to stay who make us money”. Anyone else is considered collateral damage. This kind of thinking isn’t smart, though, because that damage is poor for society as a whole, affecting social webs, carers and the like, and impacting heavily on families.

And importantly, for any EU citizen who holds Permanent Residence under the old scheme, there will be a simple process put in place to swap their current status for UK settled status.

File under: will believe it when I see it.

To keep development of the system on track, the Government is also setting up a User Group that will include representatives of EU citizens in the UK, and digital, technical and legal experts. This group will meet regularly, ensuring the process is transparent and responds properly to users’ needs. And we recognise that British nationals living in the EU27 will be similarly concerned about potential changes to processes after the UK leaves the EU. We have repeatedly flagged these issues during the negotiations. And we are keen to work closely with EU Member States to ensure their processes are equally streamlined.

OK.

We want people to stay and we want families to stay together.

Assuming you earn enough, that everyone’s in work, and that you can jump through enough hoops.

We hugely value the contributions that EU nationals make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the UK.

Enough to leave them in limbo for a year and a half.

And I know that Member States value equally UK nationals living in their communities. I hope that these reassurances, alongside those made by both the UK and the European Commission last week, will provide further helpful certainty to the four million people who were understandably anxious about what Brexit would mean for their futures.

Nope.

Oh, and a quick PS to Theresa May and her government colleagues: are you even aware that EEA and Swiss nationals are in the UK on the same free movement rules? Given that you never mention them in your hot air letters, I suspect not.

October 19, 2017. Read more in: Politics

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Tribalism and British politics, and the need for progressive electoral cooperation

I’m an advocate of proportional representation. My belief is that parliament should broadly mirror the votes made by the public, rather than being hugely imbalanced. I’m also keen on the idea of electoral pacts, in the event that parties outside of the conservative sphere have little other chance of making headway.

Polling suggests in the upcoming general election, a pact might not be enough to stop a Conservative majority anyway. But with a fully strategic approach, it’s possible many of 2015’s Liberal Democrat losses could be flipped (not least due to the party’s pro-EU stance), the Greens could make minor gains, and Labour could benefit in key seats through being backed by a majority of Liberal Democrat and Green voters.

The tiny snag is political parties and the voting public in the UK often won’t have any truck with this. The country en masse reverts to tribalism, and I just don’t understand it. Earlier today, I on Twitter spoke of a fantasy idea where the broadly progressive parties sat down and mapped out a way forward. A response I received was as follows:

Would this result in people being denied a chance to vote for policies they believe in, due to the party candidate tactically not standing?

I think this is the wrong way to look at things, but it’s also commonplace. The British have been trained to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to politics. Compromise, concession and collaboration are all dirty words in the minds of a great many people across the entire political spectrum.

To illustrate this point, I for a while was a member of a Green Party group on Facebook, largely to try and get across to its members my thoughts on the party’s approach to copyright (which I considered deeply flawed) prior to the 2015 general election. There were people there fuming at the prospect of any cooperation with parties that supported nuclear power. When asked what their plan was, they responded they would wait until the time there was a Green Party majority government that could implement its policies in full.

The reality is that there will almost certainly never be a Green Party majority government in the UK, and nor will there be a Liberal Democrat one. There cannot be Plaid Cymru or SNP majorities, and it also seems vanishingly unlikely Labour will be able to get a majority either. And so we again come down to tribalism versus compromise.

My position is that I’d rather have most of what I want than nothing at all. Under a Lab/Lib/SNP coalition, the resulting policy will be more authoritarian than I’d like, with – due to Labour – more overt compromises on Europe. Similarly for those anti-nuclear Greens, imagine a coalition where Caroline Lucas is in government with the energy brief. She wouldn’t be able to shut down all the nuclear power stations, but she would be able to begin transforming the UK’s energy situation, rapidly increasing renewable power.

In other words, the compromise position will always likely be better than what you get in deciding on all or nothing. But, as ever, despite the most urgent need for electoral cooperation in modern British history, the chances of that happening at the party level are almost nil. In part, the voting system is to blame – with a proportional representation (or even a run-off) system, you’d be able to vote with your heart and provide subsequent pragmatic ‘support’ options for other parties. But mostly the lack of political will among fairly like-minded parties (most notably right now Labour and the Liberal Democrats) and among voters will stop millions getting anything close to what they want, and will leave them with nothing.

April 21, 2017. Read more in: Opinions, Politics

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Taking back control: freedom from freedom of movement

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.

February 27, 2017. Read more in: Opinions, Politics

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Alt history: what happened after Remain won the 2016 European Union membership referendum

Friday 23 June, 2016. The votes all counted, the UK has decided to remain part of the EU. 17,410,742 – 51.89 per cent – ticked that particular box, with 16,141,241 (48.11 per cent) against.

Prime Minster David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle promotes heavily pro-EU Conservatives into senior positions. Pro-Brexit ministers resign before they are pushed. Over coming weeks, the new position of the UK becomes clear. The government announces immediate plans to join the Euro, thereby dropping Sterling. Immense pressure is placed on the EU by the British to instigate a federal system, akin to the United States of Europe. The UK also immediately barges its way into the Schengen Area, eliminating border controls with the rest of the EEA.

Of course, this is all bollocks, because this would never have happened. It’s the most extreme flavour of Remain, rather than the status quo, or, more likely, the UK using a narrow victory as a means to extract further concessions from the EU. And yet extreme Leave is now what the British seem to be heading for. This makes no more sense than extreme Remain, and yet we’re increasingly told that’s what we all voted for. Presumably all the ballots had an extra page no-one thought to attach.

November 22, 2016. Read more in: Politics

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