What Happens to EU Citizens Living in the UK If We Leave?

First Published in the Huffington Post

The Referendum debate has involved two sides talking across each other. The Leave campaign focusses on its strongest card – immigration. It promises a utopian dream – ‘control of our borders’ – and this dream may be enough to lead them to victory. In contrast the Remain campaign focusses single-mindedly on the economy: the risk of economic disaster in the event of Britain leaving the UK. It’s as if there’s a tacit agreement that immigration is a negative and only by ignoring it, or in more recent days, kowtowing to anti-immigrant sentiment, can Remain have a chance of victory.

Amongst all this, one group of people has been largely ignored – the EU citizens already living here. There are estimated to be around 3 million EU passport holders living in Britain – around 5% of the UK population. This may come as a surprise as most are totally integrated into British life. It is likely that almost everyone in Britain knows someone in this position: they are friends, lovers, employers, colleagues, fellow-students, teachers of our children, academics, businesspeople, nurses and doctors. We’re not talking about those who come for a short time to earn money and then return home. I’m referring to people who have made their lives here, found love, had children, settled into jobs, bought houses. Most of these people can’t vote in the referendum – thanks to our bizarre rules, a French citizen living in the UK for 20 years cannot vote but an Australian here for 3 months can. So those friends and colleagues who are EU citizens are relying on us to protect them. If the vote is to leave, these people would no longer have a guaranteed right to remain in the UK and many could be forced to leave.

You might see this as hyperbole. You may think it inevitable that everyone currently living in Britain will be allowed to stay. I don’t think we can be so sure. Firstly, the Leave campaign has made no pledges on the subject; whilst they have made all sorts of promises there has been no guarantee of this sort. Secondly, the type of Brexit they are promoting implies that the free movement of people would be abolished. Were the Leave campaign advocating joining the EEA (European Economic Area), like Norway and Iceland, there would be no danger, as the EEA guarantees freedom of movement. If this were the choice, between staying in the EU and joining the EAA, the debate would be a far narrower, more technical one. But the Leave campaign has promised people that leaving the EU would allow Britain to ‘control its borders’. This inevitably implies some sort of ‘Canada model’: no formal connection to the EU or EEA whatsoever. So the status of EU nationals would be entirely in the hands of the British parliament.

Lets imagine what might happen in the event of a leave vote. David Cameron would quickly step down or be forced out. Boris Johnson would likely win the ensuing Tory leadership contest and become prime minister, giving key posts to key Leave Campaign allies: Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling. It’s even been mooted that Nigel Farage could be brought into the cabinet. A parliamentary rebellion, designed to keep Britain in the EEA has been mooted, but this would flounder when it became obvious that the 55% of the population that had voted for Brexit had done so in order to end freedom of movement – any attempt to override their wishes would be viewed as a betrayal of democracy. So Johnson would negotiate a full divorce from the EU, and begin to limit all immigration to Britain.

Of course there would be no mass forced exit. Boris’ rhetoric would be restrained and soothing. But things would gradually become more difficult for those without a British passport. Access to public services could be limited, benefits cut, healthcare charged for, international tuition fee level imposed for students, Of course the very rich would have no problem. But those with vulnerabilities could suffer: people with children, people that lose their job, people who become ill. The government could well extend the new rules that require non European migrants (including spouses) to earn £35,000 a year in order to be granted leave to remain. Such an extension would deny UK citizenship to around 80% of the EU citizens currently in the UK. There would be no immediate mass exit, but over the years, many EU citizens would be gradually pushed out. Even if 2/3 of them remained, that would still be a loss of one million people, pulling apart families, communities and workplaces.

Of course there’s no guarantee that these things would happen. But nothing the Leave campaign has said gives us much assurance that it wouldn’t. And the political atmosphere in the wake of a leave vote would be one of resurgent nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment; the government would face intense pressure to reduce immigration as soon as possible. The rights of non-citizens are unlikely to become a popular cause, and without the protection of the EU, European citizens in the UK would be extremely vulnerable. Many Brexiteers would welcome the scenario I’ve laid out above, it’s precisely what they want. But for those sitting on the fence, or not planning to vote, I urge you to think of neighbours, friends and colleagues whose future will be put at risk by leaving. Putting all other arguments aside, I think that for the sake of these people we have a moral obligation to vote to remain.