Just when it seemed that the government’s chaotic Brexit negotiations had damaged negotiations beyond repair, Theresa May managed to scramble together a compromise on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border that enables talks to progress onto the next stage.
Yet despite the government’s subsequent victory lap, it is worth remembering that this deal was struck months later than scheduled, and contains simply the bare minimum that EU negotiators consider as constituting “adequate progress.” As European President Donald Tusk pointed out, the delayed nature of this deal means that it will be a “furious race against time” to complete the negotiations before March 2019. Most of the substantive and complex issues regarding our future relationship with the EU, including a sustainable solution for the Irish border, have simply been kicked into the not-so-long grass.
On the issue of citizens’ rights, the government must surely be wondering if months of intransigence and bluster that resulted in the needlessly protracted anxiety and uncertainty for millions was really worth it, especially as its last minute agreement largely caved to demands made previously by the EU. It is true that the deal was considerably better than the government had previously indicated, with EU citizens in the UK having the right to stay and maintain many of the rights they currently enjoy. Theresa May also bent one of her supposed ‘red lines’ by allowing the European Court of Justice to remain the final arbiter of EU citizens’ rights for 8 years after withdrawal.
Despite the deal’s positive elements, there has been much opposition to the provision that every EU citizen will have to apply for ‘settled status’ if they are to legally remain in the UK. As pointed out by one immigration expert, it is inevitable that many EU citizens currently in the UK will fail to complete the application in time, due to lack of awareness, education or simple organisation. There are also serious doubts over the Home Office’s capacity to deal with such an influx of applications, as the department currently rejects 29% of applications and recently distributed hundreds of erroneous deportation letters. Settled status therefore risks precipitating a significant spike in undocumented and illegal migrants, who will then have to navigate the ‘hostile environment’ intentionally created by a government obsessed with reducing net migration.
One area in which the deal exceeded expectations is by making most family members of EU citizens eligible for settled status. However, EU citizens who begin a relationship with a foreign national after Brexit day will be subject to the same punitive spousal income requirements which make Britain the worst developed nation for family reunification. As Professor Steve Peers argues, this misses a vital opportunity to ‘level up’ the rights that enable us to live with our loved ones, as the current deal simply means that “migrants will be treated equally badly to nationals.”
Citizens’ rights groups have also been quick to criticise the agreement’s repercussions for UK citizens living in the EU. In July, Theresa May inexplicably rejected an offer made by the EU to guarantee the continuation of rights for Britons in the EU to move freely between member states for work, holidays or retirement. Jane Golding, Chair of British in Europe, lamented the fact that the current agreement fails to provide such a guarantee, with another campaigner describing how British citizens living abroad are “more fearful than ever of being thrown under the Brexit bus.”
It is therefore clear that, despite its generally positive reception, the minutiae of this deal have left many substantial issues unresolved. It is up to Labour to keep the pressure on the government to ensure that the rights of everyone living in Britain are safeguarded as we leave the EU.
Joe Duffy is LCHR’s Campaign Intern