Since I started my campaigning for citizens’ rights there have been several low points at which I asked myself why I still bother. But the question has come up much more frequently over the course of the last month. Why? Because I am seeing a repeat of 2016 — over two years later. This week exactly that ended in a perfect storm for EU citizens.
First there was the government’s policy paper on citizens’ rights in the event of no deal. That paper confirmed what I had long since feared: that instead of finally giving us certainty, all it would do is show us that the government is keen to rob us of even more rights and would use no deal to do exactly that. That is why the paper does not include a transition period, guaranteeing citizens’ rights only for those EU citizens resident in the UK on 29 March 2019, and why other rights, for instance around family reunion, are restricted even further.
This is not just a watering down, it is a deliberate choice that immediately increased anxieties — something that was palpable in many emails I received within less than 30 minutes of the publication of the paper. That anxiety contrasts starkly with the information email sent by the Home Office later in the day which simply notes casually that “there would be some changes to the EU Settlement Scheme if the UK leaves the EU without a deal”. Those changes are potentially existential threats. That is even more true for our British friends at home in another EU country: the UK government has abandoned them completely.
That should have been bad enough news for one week, but there was more, most notably in relation to new revelations about the Settled Status application trial. Problems with the app developed to streamline the application process for EU citizens continue, particularly in relation to the passport scanning for the ID check, which fails for many. But this week we also learned that the selfies that applicants are asked to upload as part of the process are being stored on the digital record visible to those who will, in future, be asked to check on the status of EU citizens. Best not have a name with special characters, because these are displayed as question marks on many a record. So predictable a problem — and, consequently, even more worrying that it is one.
All of this makes it even worse that we also learned this week that EU citizens who have problems with the passport scanner of the app are being asked to visit one of only a handful of centres throughout the UK to have their passport checked there instead. They are being charged for that in addition to the general fee and for many this will involve long-distance travel — so further costs that could range from having to take a day off work to transport costs. Given this is down to the failure of the Home Office to develop a system that works for everyone emphasises what a farce all of this is.
In light of these issues it was even more shameful to hear Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester, use a case of domestic violence to make a point against freedom of movement in the House of Commons, singling out the perpetrator as “European” — is this now a swear word? If it is I’m sorry to have to tell you that you will all remain Europeans, EU member or not. In the House of Commons this drew audible gasps, and an apology followed. But given Mr Graham later told me on Twitter that securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK immediately would have been an “own goal” that apology seems rather hollow.
In many ways all of this has been an integral part of daily life for EU citizens at home in the UK since the EU referendum. What makes it extraordinary now is that over two years have passed — so what it shows is that, in essence, nothing much has changed. This is illustrated most clearly by the Norway Plus report published by the People’s Vote campaign. Instead of finally offering a progressive view on freedom of movement, all the report does is pander to Leave lies, for instance in relation to an emergency brake. Even if the report is trying to speak to Leave voters this strategy is deeply flawed. If the only way People’s Vote campaigners can think of speaking to Leavers is by further pandering to anti-freedom of movement views, then this is a lost cause already. This did not work in 2016. And it will not work now.
Next week, on 11 December, Parliament will vote on the Brexit deal the Prime Minister negotiated with the EU. That day also marks an anniversary for EU citizens at home in the UK and our British friends in continental Europe: we will have lived 900 days in limbo on 11 December. That makes 900 days of more hate directed at us; 900 days of our voices being largely ignored; 900 days of anxiety and fear. Those 900 days are 900 days too many. But as the no-deal policy paper and the rhetoric of some politicians and some campaigners have shown us this week, for some 900 days of all of that are apparently still not enough.