Chris Murray is an IPPR Research Fellow.
Theresa May showed her trademark steel this week when she refused to guarantee the future of EU nationals in Britain until the rights of UK nationals on the continent are assured. The livelihoods of three million Europeans in the UK, many of whom have been here for years, are now bargaining chips in the upcoming negotiations.
Undoubtedly this is a calculated position on Mrs May’s part, designed to send a message to Conservative members about how she will deal with European leaders. Mrs May’s toughness is intended to be reassuring to Tories who harbour doubts about a Remainer prime minister. By refusing to guarantee the rights of Europeans here, she is showing that she will play hardball with Brussels. Where others would accept the point and move on, the Home Secretary is signalling that she is willing to contest every point. That will go down well in the leadership election.
But the strategy is flawed, because the position is not plausible. The rights of EU migrants currently in Britain are scarcely under threat and other European leaders know it. For one thing, millions of EU citizens living here have put down significant roots. They have married Brits, their children go to our schools, they have built lives for themselves. The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain will remain a party post-Brexit, would overturn any attempt to deport such people. Indeed, the biggest threat to the Convention’s jurisdiction evaporated when Mrs May dropped her call to leave it last week.
Furthermore, forcing EU nationals to leave is a sure-fire way to cripple the NHS. Some 55,000 EU citizens work in the health service, and one in ten doctors in the NHS is a European. If even half of them left it would create a public health emergency. Some of the key industries that the government needs to convince to stay in Britain – such as financial services, academia and technology – employ tens of thousands of EU migrants. Our economy will need them to weather the coming recession. No government would chase them out.
The reciprocal threat to Brits abroad doesn’t stack up either. This week the German Vice-Chancellor has already suggested expediting German citizenship for Brits there. Similar moves are afoot in France. If anything, we should be wary of choking off that goodwill.
Finally, the idea of deporting three million people to friendly states with whom we are engaged in critical economic negotiations is not only administratively infeasible. It would be diplomatically calamitous.
Implying that she will drive a hard bargain with Europe may appeal to Tory members, but it sows uncertainty and fear for millions. Brexit threw up a lot of uncertainties. But deporting EU citizens already here is not going to happen, and Mrs May should stop implying otherwise.
The biggest risk for Mrs May is that other governments may call her bluff, knowing she will have to concede this point. She risks ratcheting up the stakes and making everyone play hardball. A poor deal on the rights of citizens abroad carries bigger long-term risks for Britain than it does for the other EU countries. Strategically she should de-escalate. She should argue that it is in the national interest to bring security to the economy and public services that employ so many Europeans, and bring clarity to their status. At IPPR, we have worked out a plan to do that.
Firstly, all EU migrants already living here should be automatically transferred onto Indefinite Leave to Remain. That is an immigration status that is currently available to non-EU migrants, which allows them to live and work here without restriction. But it expires after a period if they choose to leave Britain. So, in a further move, EU migrants who have been in Britain for over five years should be automatically entitled to British citizenship for free.
Secondly, we should recognise the special status of European children being educated in Britain. Whatever happens, spending their childhood here will give them an enduring commitment to our country. They should be offered automatic British citizenship.
Thirdly, to safeguard the future of the NHS and ensure the migrant doctors and nurses do not leave, all EU health workers should be offered automatic, free British citizenship.
An offer like this would send a strong message: we may be renegotiating our relationship with Europe, but we aren’t pulling up the drawbridge. Mrs May should drop the empty threats. She may win more votes in the long term if she does.