To EU nationals like me, the UK is not our ‘destination’ – it is our home

The government’s latest Brexit reassurances are just another punch in the face for EU scholars, writes Tanja Bueltmann

December 4, 2017
EU referendum
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I – along with the 33,000 academics from other European Union countries who have chosen to make the UK their home, and who have worked and otherwise contributed to life in the UK, some of them for decades – will “not be asked to leave” as a result of Brexit, says immigration minister Brandon Lewis.

How lovely to be told that, is it not? So reassuring. Graciously, I bow my head and kneel in thanks to the immense humanity shown.

Of course, I am not doing any such thing. For that line from Mr Lewis’ article for Times Higher Education last week is just another punch in the face of EU nationals in the UK – just the latest in a very long line of punches that have been dispensed for more than 500 days. Does anyone seriously think that telling us that we will not be asked to leave is in any way reassuring? Or that we will receive it positively?

All it says is that someone may actually have thought we could be asked to go. Or worse, should be asked. It is also an incredibly condescending point to make for it ignores two key facts: that we chose you, the UK, not the reverse; and that we came here exercising reciprocal rights. 

Your comments, Mr Lewis, are therefore like all government comments on the question of the rights of EU nationals: they fail at even the most basic level. Instead of providing an actual assurance, they simply repeat the same waffle that we have heard on now countless occasions since 24 June 2016.

While such comments might sound quite nice on paper, and were perhaps genuine in the first week or so after the referendum, they have become completely meaningless because the government’s actions tell a fundamentally different story. And it is the actions that count, not the nice, fluffy words. If at any point the UK government had wanted us to stay, we would not have been made bargaining chips. If at any point the UK government had wanted us to stay, we would not have been left in limbo for more than 500 days – and counting.

If at any point the UK government had wanted us to stay, we would have been given a say in the EU referendum itself. If at any point the UK government had wanted us to stay, we would not now be faced with “settled status”.

I want to be clear about what all this means. It means, first, that the government chose to throw us under the metaphorical bus, making our lives, well-being and mental health dispensable collateral by arguing that we are “negotiating capital”. And it means, second, that the UK government is not interested in protecting our rights because “settled status” would take rights away from us.

To make matters worse, Mr Lewis, you advise that you “expect that the vast majority of cases” will be granted, which suggests that there is a possibility that not all will. Evidently, the UK government is not ensuring that our lives can “go on as they do now” –  a counterfactual claim in any case given that they already no longer go on as they used to. 

In the absence of concrete assurances and actual guarantees, the work of the Migration Advisory Committee is flagged in the article as though it is some sort of positive sign of how much the government cares about the role played by EU nationals in the UK. No review is needed to establish that: we already know. Study after study has shown that we contribute more than we take out, and that we are an asset and a benefit to the UK.

And of course this holds true not just for higher education but across all sectors. From low-skilled to high-skilled, you need us. It is why the departure of EU nurses and doctors from the NHS is already having devastating effects. It is why university vice-chancellors are pleading for the government to do more to secure the rights of EU nationals. It is why restaurants and hotels are struggling to recruit staff. It is why, earlier in the autumn, fruit was rotting in UK fields.

The lives of millions are in limbo, and the UK government does not get to cherry-pick who of us it would like to stay. We all have feet, and we can all walk away.

You say, Mr Lewis, that we should not underestimate the government’s commitment to ensuring that the UK remains one of the most popular destinations for international students and staff. Yet again you fail to understand. The UK is not a destination to us: it is our home.

But let me also reassure you that there is no way in which we could ever underestimate the government’s commitment: we already know, from our own experience, that it is non-existent. The government chose to make more than 3 million people bargaining chips (millions more if we factor in the impact Brexit has on families and also British citizens resident in the EU). It created a "hostile environment".

A recent survey carried out by the campaign group The 3 Million reveals that only 42 per cent of EU nationals are currently planning to stay in the UK post-Brexit. So please do not underestimate this reality of Brexit. It is time for the UK government to get real. 

Tanja Bueltmann is professor of history, Northumbria University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Prof. Bueltmann writes that 'If at any point the UK government had wanted us to stay, we would have been given a say in the EU referendum itself.' As is the case across all EU countries, only those with full citizenship can vote in national elections. As for hotels, restaurants and farmers struggling to recruit staff, I'd say this is more of an indictment of the fact that for too long these sectors have been able to rely on cheap imported labour from EU countries.