(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As crowds gathered last week to protest U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament ahead of Brexit, a distraught woman pushed her way in front of the cameras to voice her fears of being kicked out of the country.
“I’m Portuguese and I’ve worked here for 20 years,” she said, explaining that her bid to register for the right to stay had been refused. “I looked after your children, I looked after the elderly of this country. Now you kick me out.”
It was the latest in a series of emotional pleas from EU citizens who have made Britain their home over the years without a visa or passport – one of the perks of being a member of the bloc that the U.K. is set to leave on Oct. 31.
The right to stay after Brexit as a “settled” EU national is neither automatic nor permanent, and the bureaucratic hoop-jumping involved has caught out French chefs, Belgian civil servants and even a 77-year-old Dutch woman who moved to the U.K. before it joined the EU. The bare-knuckle approach of Johnson, who is promising to deliver Brexit whatever happens, and his cabinet colleague Priti Patel, who recently warned that freedom of movement for EU nationals may end overnight, are sowing fear.
No doubt conscious of bad publicity and the economic impact of chasing away 3.6 million Europeans – nurses, construction workers and bankers – pro-Brexit politicians have been trying to strike a more reassuring tone. Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, a leading proponent of leaving, called on the U.K. to honor “assurances” made to EU nationals that they would be allowed to stay in Britain. Patel’s Home Office has reiterated that EU citizens will have until at least the end of 2020 to apply for settled status, and the Sunday Times reported that plans to scrap freedom of movement on Oct. 31 had been postponed (if only because they would trigger chaos). Johnson, too, has previously said he welcomed migration.
But why should EU citizens (of which I’m one) take the Brexiters’ reassurances at face value? Since the 2016 referendum, immigrants have been mocked and insulted by U.K. politicians anxious to flex their nativist muscles. Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May came to power attacking the “citizens of nowhere” and ended her term praising Brexit as a chance to stop EU workers from “jumping the queue”. Amber Rudd said in 2016 that foreigners shouldn’t be able to “take the jobs that British people should do,” and vowed to force firms to keep tabs on the nationality of their employees. Former Trade Minister Liam Fox, meanwhile, described EU citizens as negotiating “cards” with Brussels. This wasn’t Nigel Farage talking; it was the U.K. government.
Policy has followed rhetoric. The EU Settlement Scheme is a glorified digital ID card that no ordinary U.K. citizen would accept. It creates three Kafkaesque categories of European: “Settled,” for those who have lived in Britain long enough to stay as long as they like (a status that expires if they leave the country for more than five years); “Pre-Settled,” for those who don’t quite qualify for “Settled” status; and neither – applicants can be refused on suitability grounds, such as having a criminal conviction. The chart below shows a chilling drop in the rate of successful applications for settled status since April. No wonder about two-thirds of eligible EU citizens haven’t bothered.
What Brexiters fail to realize is that a green check on a smartphone app isn’t going to reassure a minority group that can tell which way the political wind is blowing. There is historical precedent here. As the British Empire unraveled after the Second World War, the U.K. welcomed immigrants from the Commonwealth, offering them freedom of movement. After a political backlash in the 1960s that culminated in Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, those commitments were torn up – leaving, among others, Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians unable to live and work in Britain freely despite having U.K. passports. The same may happen again.
The idea that trust can be easily restored between the U.K. government and EU nationals – most of whom couldn’t vote in the 2016 referendum that sealed their fate – looks increasingly unrealistic. The day the Brexit dividend finally arrives, there will simply be fewer of them around to see it.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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