Since the pandemic stopped British citizens moving freely across Europe, the sacrifice of that same freedom to Brexit has not been much. It isn’t even a cost in Eurosceptic lore, where the right to live and work in 27 other countries was never treated as a reciprocal benefit. It was resented as a licence for them to come over here. Revoking it was priority number one for the UK in talks with Brussels.
The referendum result was interpreted as a duty to satisfy people who saw no value in freedom of movement at the expense of people who had built their lives around it. That included plenty of UK citizens at work or in retirement in mainland Europe. The price of a dark blue passport was someone else’s world turned upside down.
That particular argument is over, but Brexit is only “done” in the sense that BorisJohnson is done thinking about it. Moving on is hardly an option for millions of EU nationals who had the welcome mat pulled from under their feet. The total number is unknown. They were not counted on the way in because they arrived as citizens, not aliens. That is what freedom of movement meant. Rights conferred by EU membership must now be traded for conditional status, achieved by navigation of a bureaucratic labyrinth – the Home Office’s “EU settlement scheme”.
At least 5.4 million people have applied. Not all of them will be valid candidates, but the volume suggests that previous counts, putting the number of EU nationals in the UK at about 3.6 million, fell short. The deadline for applications, when a “grace period” expires, is 30 June 2021. The current backlog of unprocessed cases is about 320,000. No one knows how many more are entitled to stay but have not yet applied. Some will be unaware of the obligation; some need help with the process. There are at least 3,660 children currently or recently in care who qualify, but who are relying on local authorities to do the paperwork on their behalf and on time. Probably more.
The pandemic has drowned the sound of the clock ticking down to the deadline. People have been trapped abroad by travel restrictions. That can blemish a record of days spent on UK soil, spoiling an application by changing the calculation regarding “settled” and “pre-settled” status. (This is just one hellish sub-chamber in the bureaucratic maze.)
It is safe to presume a heap of cases will be bungled by the Home Office. Add those to deserving cases that won’t even be considered in time, and there could easily be hundreds of thousands of EU nationals falling into a legal void on 1 July. Some will get residency permission reinstated, but it will not be backdated. A stretch of unlawful migrant status will then haunt their record.
In theory, the grace period could easily be extended. In other areas where the timetable for Brexit implementation has felt tight – chiefly the Northern Ireland protocol – the UK is all for flexibility and cutting itself some slack. But the domestic political incentives there are different. Johnson is under pressure from his own side to ease the passage of agricultural goods crossing the Irish Sea. No Tory is demanding equivalent compassion for Polish care workers.
The settlement scheme is a machine that issues permissions to stay in Britain, but with suspicion as a byproduct. Any slips and it becomes a conveyor, whisking people into the Home Office’s “hostile environment”, churning out a caseload of trauma and injustice; a sequel to the Windrush scandal.
Confidence is hardly boosted by reports that officials recently misdirected a mailshot urging the wrong people to sort out their immigration status. Dual nationals with British passports were among the recipients of the letter warning that, among other threats, NHS access could be lost if prompt action was not taken.
Those who have been granted settled or pre-settled status find it is no guarantee against discrimination and exclusion. Private landlords, who are legally obliged to verify a tenant’s immigration status, are unfamiliar with the new categories and often unwilling to take a chance. The same goes for some employers and mortgage lenders. Any period of legal limbo can result in a loss of benefits, or bills for NHS services.
What will happen to EU nationals at border crossings is also unknown. Travel volumes are low right now but the signs are not great. Visitors have been barred from entering the country; some have been held in detention centres. Most of those cases appear to be breaches of new visa requirements that should not, in theory, affect “settled” EU nationals. But some of them will have no paperwork to prove their privileged status, having been trapped overseas by the pandemic. Who would bet on them getting discretionary leniency from a Border Force officer at Heathrow?
None of this is intended as relitigation of the Brexit argument. Nor is it a claim that migration policy on the continent is a rolling showcase of Enlightenment values. Last week, Michel Barnier, plotting a long-shot candidacy in next year’s French presidential election, floated the idea of shutting his country’s borders completely. Sinister rhetoric about white Europe being overrun with dark-skinned foreigners has encroached much further into mainstream debate in many EU states than in Britain. The issue here is not abstract ideals of what Europe means or once meant, but present legal reality in Britain.
The Tories think their Brexit model is fair to EU nationals because it allows them to stay, as long as they meet the official criteria. What they do not grasp is the insecurity and injury inherent in the conversion from belonging in a country to being tolerated there; from being somewhere by right, in perpetuity, to being there on time-limited conditions. The more zealously those conditions are applied, the more it will hurt. The shift does not apply to British passport holders, but that does not mean we are unaffected. The political winds changed, and overnight millions of people who thought they had a kind of citizenship became instead a kind of alien. It is not only EU nationals who feel the chill in that wind.