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Only Theresa May can end this inhumane tug of war over EU citizens

4 min read

For the sake of Britain’s economy, and soul, Theresa May must immediately and unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently residing in the UK, says Yanis Varoufakis

In a country divided on whether and how Brexit should proceed, one major issue can be resolved immediately and bring a much-needed sense of unity across the country – the future status of EU citizens currently residing in the UK.

The answer is simple and should be supported both by Leavers and Remainers. Grant them British citizenship unilaterally and immediately!

Concerns over this issue fall under two headings: substantive concerns, on whether it is right to grant citizenship to millions of EU citizens at once; and strategic concerns, over whether it is prudent to make such a move unilaterally.

On the substantive question, telling those whom Britain allowed to arrive on its shores to set up a new life without an expiry date that they are welcome to become citizens of this land is entirely consistent with the British penchant for gradualism, customary law-making, and openness to a variety of Europeans that have enriched this country over the centuries.

Indeed, any other arrangement would require the setting up of a new bureaucracy within the immigration department whose employees are given the soul-destroying role of having to weed out, and deport, people who until recently had a legal right to live out their days in Britain. The effect on the state’s functionaries, on the EU residents who will live in fear and uncertainty for years to come, but, also, on the broader community will be toxic.

On the question of strategy, there is an argument that one should never concede something important without an equivalent concession from the ‘other’ side. However, it is a weak argument. First, the EU negotiators, led by Michel Barnier, do not have a mandate to negotiate the granting of British citizenship to EU citizens resident in the UK. They are demanding, instead, that EU citizens maintain their rights as if the UK remained in the EU, with the full authority of the European courts extended forever.

This is something that Mrs May will reject from the outset, thus setting the scene for an interminable tussle. Unlike other issues (such as Britain’s contribution to Brussels coffers), the ‘rope’ in this tug-of-war is made of actual flesh-and-blood people: EU citizens living in Britain and Britons living in the rest of the EU.

When one adds to this horrific picture the thought that Mr Barnier has demanded that, to achieve any progress on anything, London must concede on everything, this inhumane tug-of-war will most likely continue for a long time with little prospect of a friendly settlement.

In stand-offs like the one developing, unfortunately, between the British government and the EU today the outcome depends largely on public opinion. Already, Brussels has utilised its superior connections with the international press to sully the image of Mrs May, using the tried and tested method of leaks combined with insinuations that anyone challenging the EU position is either naive or incompetent (or both). Compare and contrast two situations in this regrettable context:

  • Mrs May uses EU citizens as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Mr Barnier.
  • Mrs May convenes a press conference tomorrow morning to announce that EU citizens residing in the UK will be granted British citizenship forthwith, and independently of the negotiations with Mr Barnier.

In the first case, the British prime minister will be portrayed as a haggling little Englander struggling to cut a deal. In the second case, she will demolish Mr Barnier’s demands that Europe’s courts oversee the rights of EU citizens in the UK (as they will now be British citizens) and occupy the high moral ground, especially if she finishes her press conference with something like: “Britain acted honorably toward Europeans living in our country. I expect that other European governments will do likewise.”

Lastly, using people instrumentally (in the pursuit of other goals) is inconsistent with civilised society. One way or another, Britain’s society, economy and soul will be served well by refusing to do so.   


Yanis Varoufakis is the co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 and the former Greek finance minister

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