Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Amid all the angst and acrimony, let’s cling to one area of agreement. All sides concur that EU citizens already in the UK should be allowed to stay here with the right to work and claim benefits as now. Labour and Conservative, Leave and Remain, everyone signs up to the principle. During the referendum, both the official Leave campaign and Arron Banks’s spoiler operation declared that, whatever happened, nothing should prejudice the rights of EU nationals who had already made their lives in Britain.
Indeed, the only politicians who seemed to have a problem with the idea were Theresa May and, oddly enough, Philip Hammond, who insisted on seeing the issue as part of a bargaining process. Not until 2018 did May finally agree to grant settled status to EU nationals, and months more were to pass before she was prevailed on to waive the £65 processing fee.
Boris Johnson, by contrast, always saw the issue in terms of trust and decency. At no stage has he wavered in that view. So what is the problem?
Like other politicians, I have been hearing complaints from EU nationals in in my region who believe they have had their applications turned down, despite being resident in Britain – in some cases for many years.
In fact, what we are seeing is a degree of bureaucratic friction. No one has a claim “rejected”; but some are asked for further proof of residence. Typically, a National Insurance number will do but, in some cases, other evidence is required: a bank statement, a council tax bill or similar.
Rather as when you open a bank account, it can be a pain to get exactly the right documentation together. Sometimes, even when you think you have done everything correctly, you run up against a “computer says no” glitch. In normal times, you would simply grit your teeth and submit whatever else was being asked for. The Home Office, after all, is known to be useless at little things.
These, though, are not normal times. Many EU nationals are still upset about the referendum result, and can interpret a request for more paperwork as a “no”. Some campaigners have, unhelpfully, sought to weaponise the issue. False claims about Brexit being driven by anti-immigrant hostility, rising hate crimes and so forth, have created a febrile atmosphere.
For what it is worth, Britons are likelier than almost any other EU nationals to see immigration as a net good. The number of us who view immigration as largely positive has risen significantly since the 2016 referendum. And despite claims of a “Brexodus”, there are more EU nationals here than ever. The newcomers plainly don’t believe that they will face a hostile atmosphere; nor, indeed, that economic growth is in jeopardy.
Still, the fact that some European citizens feel rejected, or even believe that they might face repatriation, is intolerable. We must fix it. What should we do?
We need to give people a clear sense of legal reassurance. Europeans who haven’t submitted the relevant paperwork should not feel that they have thereby missed the boat, or are somehow in danger of deportation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, a child of French parents who came here in infancy, and is currently in primary school. We must not allow a situation where, through oversight, such a child, years from now, could face a Windrush-type debacle.
How? I am no lawyer, but my sense is that we should emphasise the distinction between having a legal entitlement and exercising your rights under it. Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP who has led the campaign to establish the rights of EU nationals more clearly, gives the example of applying for a passport. You are British by right, but when you apply for a passport, you still need to establish that you are who you claim. In the same way, EU nationals should have settled status by right, though they will similarly have to prove who they are when they wish to (say) acquire a National Insurance number.
It is not an exact parallel, but the Spanish government ruled in 2015 that Sephardic Jews with Hispanic connections were entitled to citizenship – belated restitution for the expulsion of 1492. Those wishing to avail themselves of that right – as several thousand have done – still needed to submit documentation to prove that they had Sephardic Jewish heritage. But the right itself was not in dispute.
Whether we need primary legislation, or whether there is a neater method, others can judge better than I can. If, as rumoured, Priti Patel is about to announce a softening of the abrupt cut-off for EU nationals on 1 November, so much the better: it gives us the time we need. A clear legal entitlement will, I hope, settle the minds of the EU nationals resident here. It is the least we can do.