Who could have predicted that the fate of millions of people from EU member states presently residing in the United Kingdom remains uncertain? There may be something deplorable about treating their future as though it was a card to be played in the negotiations to determine the terms and conditions of Britain’s departure from the EU but, deplorable or not, there is little that is surprising about it. This is so even though treating these people in this way leaves many people, including many Leave voters, feeling distinctly queasy. If nothing else it offends an inchoate sense of fair-play.
But negotiations change previously accepted realities. There is little avoiding the fact that much of the Leave campaign was based, implicitly, on something more than just taking control of Britain’s borders in the future. After all, if immigration from the EU had been excessive in the past did it not follow that there were, right now, too many foreigners living in Britain? It wasn’t just imaginary future immigrants who were putting intolerable pressure on hard-pressed public services, it was real and actual immigrants doing so now. If that weren’t the case it is hard to see how immigration, and border control, could have become the dominant issue in the final month of the campaign.
In that respect Theresa May is merely responding to the implied wishes of the British people. Besides, it may be the case that even Panglossian Brexiteers are now waking up to the fact that the other party in any negotiation has interests too. And that, far from making Brexit easier, all the EU’s incentives lie in making it difficult. If that means taking some pain themselves then so be it if, crucially, doing so advances their greater goals and/or inflicts even greater pain upon the other negotiating party.
This, I should add, was entirely foreseeable. Not least because the UK has repudiated the EU only to then ask the EU to give the UK everything it wants in the negotiations. Why should the EU do that? What’s in it for them? Something, perhaps, but not enough.
So there is every chance the negotiations will be a bruising, and even ugly, business. There will be collateral damage and, at present, the uncertain status of EU nationals living in the UK is part of that damage. It would be good – and the decent thing to do – if the Prime Minister put an end to that uncertainty but that she cannot seems a reflection of the growing awareness Britain’s negotiating position may be weaker than it would like to think. But I’m afraid I can’t quite go along with the boss when he writes that: ‘Throughout the referendum campaign, unilateral assurance for EU nationals was proposed not just by Boris and Michael Gove but by everyone from Ukip to the Liberal Democrats.’
It’s not that he is mistaken, per se, merely that this is an incomplete account. Consider this paragraph culled from Tim Shipman’s masterly account of the Brexit campaign, All Out War: ‘The alternative government reached its apogee on 15 June when Vote Leave published a ‘roadmap of six new laws that they would introduce in the event of Brexit. Everyone else called it a ‘Brexit Queen’s Speech’. The plan included legislation to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act; a special Finance Bill to scrap VAT on household fuel; an NHS Funding Bill to channel the extra cash to the NHS; a Free Trade Bill; an Asylum and Immigration Control Bill; and an Emergency Provisions Bill to end the judicial supremacy of the European Court of Justice and remove EU citizens “whose presence is not conducive to the public good“.’
Emphasis added. Now you may object that this was a stunt and one not meant to be taken literally or even seriously. You may further note that the people sketching this glorious vision of a glorious future were in no position to make good their promises. You could also say that citizens whose ‘presence is not conducive to the public good’ allows for plenty of wiggle room and just enough space to maintain plausible deniability should anyone suggest this raised the prospect of deportation wagons cruising the streets of Britain looking to snatch Poles and Bulgars and anyone else carrying the wrong kind of passport. And you would, for sure, have a point on all those counts. This was a cheque written by people in no position to honour it. Actually, it was a fake cheque too.
But you cannot, at least not with any honesty, deny that this happened or that it was not supposed to have an effect. It was intended to create a picture of one possible future and voters were asked to give this future their broad consent. And it seems to me that a document released, amidst much fanfare, by the official Leave campaign just eight days before polling day should be granted some weight.
Removing EU citizens is there and I have a suspicion that, not the part about limiting such removals to those deemed inimical to the public good, was the bit Vote Leave were happy to have people remember. You certainly didn’t need to venture far, even in pro-Remain cities such as Edinburgh, to come across voters who thought voting Leave was the best, and perhaps only, way of getting rid of immigrants from eastern Europe.
I dare say, too, that this embarrasses those Leavers who never wanted any truck with this kind of talk and for whom this sort of targeted nastiness played no part in their preference for Brexit. Nevertheless, this was the campaign they supported and I’m not persuaded it’s quite enough to say they only wanted the nice parts of Brexit during, and after, a campaign that went big on the nastier parts of Brexit. It was there and apparent all along, even if people preferred not to look. I wish it wasn’t so but this, you know, is a problem the Brexit people brought on themselves. Sometimes you have eat the cake you have.