For all its ferocious momentum, Boris Johnson’s government is capable of making pretty bad mistakes – as we saw with Priti Patel’s announcement that free movement of people will end with Brexit on 31 October. A problem, when it hasn’t worked out let alone revealed what regime will replace it. As I say in this week’s cover story, this decision saw millions of EU nationals plunged into uncertainty – and by a Prime Minister who had promised them security. The Sunday Times today reveals that the decision has been revoked.
The Home Office has only managed to process one million of the three million EU nationals living in the country, giving them settled or pre-settled status. And what would happen to the other two million on 31 October? How would a French baker who has lived here for 30 years distinguish himself from a French baker just off the ferry if he starts a new job? What happens to employers who today hire a Dutch data analyst due to start in three months’ time? Might this proposed £35k salary threshold apply? Would there be quotas? That’s the problem with free movement: it’s not just about future migration. It’s the system that governs the lives of millions of British residents (and voters). To end it without carefully working out what follows after shows thoughtlessness. At least when the extent of the problem became clear (ie, that it would mean a nightmare of legal challenges and cause needless misery) the idea was dropped.
This government is doing much at once, with a coherence and drive that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago. It was inevitable that it would get a few serious things wrong. But blunders over EU nationals is particularly dangerous, because it strikes at the heart of a big question: what kind of Brexit Boris Johnson is aiming for. Where we might end up, when all this is over.
No10 intended all this as a statement of the legally obvious: how can the EU’s freedom of movement still apply when we leave? But FoM has a legal meaning under UK law and would need to be revoked by parliament. Chaos in this area affects people like Anna Amato, whom we interview in this week’s podcast, who has lived here for 50 years and has been denied permanent status. Clarity is needed.
The EU Settlement Scheme is issuing a suspiciously large number of people with temporary status (ie, five years) when they qualify for and deserve permanent status. Blaming for clicking the wrong button or not having proper records (the Home Office’s instinctive reaction with this, as it was with Windrush) won’t do. A third of EU nationals who have applied have so far placed in the temporary five-year category: many of them are shocked and upset to find themselves so. If the system is so confusing that people seeking permanent residence are temporary residence, it’s the Home Office’s problem. It reflects badly on the motives of a Tory government.
Michael Gove has always been mindful of this danger. He opposed Theresa May’s (awful) plan to withhold assurances from EU nationals. When running for the Tory leadership a few months ago, he proposed free citizenship for EU nationals who wanted it, saving them up to £2,000 on fees. This is precisely the message that needs to be sent out if Johnson government is serious about a Brexit that reassures not just EU nationals but their friends, family, colleagues and neighbours.
Declaring an end to freedom of movement on 31 October was the biggest mistake this government has (so far) made – and it’s encouraging to see it rectified so soon. The treatment of EU nationals will, in general, show if Boris Johnson can live up the promises he made to them – and everyone else – about the type of Brexit he intends to implement.