Uncertainty & Dog-Whistle Politics: The Future Of EU Citizens
Migration has always been a controversial topic in politics, but it became an obsession in the run-up to the EU referendum. The 2016 vote followed years of unsuccessful government pledges to push net migration below 100,000. For some, ‘take back control’ meant ‘take back control of immigration’.
The referendum campaign witnessed countless toxic and unsubstantiated headlines about migrants, portrayed as putting a huge strain on the availability of jobs and housing. Many happily accepted the loss of freedom of movement for British citizens, because it meant having ‘fewer of them’ coming over.
Freedom of movement is misunderstood and maligned. It was not defended enough by Remain in 2016 and very few speak in favour of it today. Despite the 2019 Labour Party conference voting unanimously for maintaining freedom of movement, Labour’s current manifesto seems to avoid the issue, leaving it subject to future negotiations with the EU. This vacuum is filled by callous Tory rhetoric linking freedom of movement with terrorism and crime.
Years of negative rhetoric prompt many EU citizens resident in the UK to pack their bags. Their rights are not guaranteed in law and their future is deeply uncertain. Many are going, yet not many are coming. This year, the number of EU citizens arriving in the UK fell to its lowest level since 2003, while net migration from the rest of the world has gone up. The latter is not down to lack of control – the UK fully controls non-EU migration and already has a points-based system in place. This is because Britain needs migrants.
The major political parties are aware of this economic reality but draw different conclusions. The Conservatives want an “Australian-style” points-based system for all migrants, including EU citizens, so the UK cuts back on lower-skilled workers. This would obviously be disastrous for social care and other sectors where many workers are still classified as “unskilled”. The Government also wants to retain EU citizens already in the UK. But the tone has changed - just a few weeks ago we were praised for our contribution as their ‘friends, family and neighbours’, but now we’re labelled as criminals and welfare abusers. This language has a huge effect on the well-being of EU citizens. It is also irresponsible gaslighting, especially given that the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee report disproves all these negative claims.
While the Tories’ proposed immigration policy is actually a more unfair system for everyone and has no solid guarantees for EU citizens already in the country, Labour and the Lib Dems want to abolish the infamous “hostile environment”, a policy preventing migrants accessing basic services without proof of their status.
The Labour manifesto also includes the3million’s demand to grant EU nationals the automatic right to continue living and working in the UK under a “declaratory system” that won’t punish those estimated hundreds of thousands of people who will be unable to apply by the tight deadline. It also acknowledges the need to extend voting rights to UK residents – a truly progressive policy that will ensure EU citizens have a say in their future.
The last three years have seen seismic changes in the UK that threaten EU citizens’ rights and deny them a political voice. Among these is the resurrection of the so-called Henry VIII powers to overrule Parliament. We are increasingly faced with an executive keen to limit its accountability so it is important for organisations like the3million and the public to observe how they are using those powers and whether there is a risk of abuse. Going to court may be the only way to make this and future governments accountable.
the3million are fundraising for a legal team to be able to act swiftly, should a future Tory government try to erode citizens’ rights through the back door.
By Maike Bohn, Co-founder, the3million.