Cllr Nick Paget-Brown is the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
About 3.3 million EU citizens live in the UK. That’s a big number. But what is clear is that at every level and in every sector of our economy these citizens have been putting in a shift.
In Kensington and Chelsea, their contribution is huge: in our restaurants, our hotels, in our shops, hospitals and GP surgeries, and here at the Council, we have been benefiting mightily from highly skilled EU workers.
Of course, there has been an occasional wrong’un. Given the numbers, that’s inevitable. What is not inevitable, what is in fact really rather remarkable, is that so many have been able to come to the UK and yet their presence amongst us has been overwhelmingly peaceful and positive. It is a huge tribute to the European nations that they have been able to produce so many millions of bilingual and multilingual people who not only have skills, but behave well and work hard. And let’s not forget, it is also a tribute to the UK, its openness, dynamism and tolerance that they chose to come here rather than any other country.
Brexit means major change and many will have anxieties about the future. It is said that EU citizens are particularly anxious. If true, that’s a great pity. As far as I can see, there is not a single mainstream Brexiteer calling for deportation, repatriation or whatever one would have to call such an infamous policy; indeed, the extensive polling done on this issue shows an overwhelming majority of British people – Brexiteers and Bremainers alike – think EU citizens must be allowed to stay.
The real question seems to be purely whether reassurance can be offered straightaway, or should instead be settled as part of a reciprocal agreement that will provide equivalent reassurance for UK citizens living in the EU, which is not an unimportant consideration.
My own preference, shared with many of my Conservative colleagues at Kensington and Chelsea, is for the Government to give a clear statement now, by which I mean immediately, and if necessary without reciprocity. I think that would be a statement of our British values; values by the way which have never been dependent on the EU or its institutions.
To the Spanish girl at Pret fleeing 45 per cent youth unemployment in Spain; to the Greek nurse working in our NHS because of the heartbreaking cuts to the Greek health service; to the archetypal hard-working Polish builder or indeed to the French banker making a packet in the City and in so doing paying a packet to the Exchequer, my message is this: if you have made Britain your home, we want and expect you to be able to stay.
In fact, I do not believe the British people will have it any other way.