Monday, 20 February 2017

Let's have a bit of British fairplay for EU citizens living in the UK

Whether you voted Remain or Leave, please be aware that the Home Office are using a little known rule about health insurance to refuse official permanent resident status to EU citizens who have lived, worked and paid taxes here for many years. 

This is despite the fact that a student, stay at home parent or unemployed person from another EU country who is already legally resident doesn't actually need health insurance as they have the right to use the NHS. In addition, the European Commission has said that not treating the right to NHS treatment as adequate health insurance breaches the rules on free movement.

Some EU citizens have even mistakenly been sent letters from the Home Office informing them to prepare to leave the UK as they have no right to be here. A German neuroscientist living in the UK since 1999 was rather shocked to receive such a letter.

This is partly a consequence of successive government's failure to implement proper control mechanisms for free movement as other EU countries do. Free movement has always been conditional, but the UK didn't bother to use the conditionality, while other countries e.g. Belgium where I used to live, have done so. 

I have never received a satisfactory explanation as to why successive UK governments chose not to use the controls on free movement allowed by EU law. When the Liberal Democrats were in government, I raised this several times, but the Home Office (then under Theresa May) was not interested. I suspect it might have been because the costs of implementing controls would be significant and that virtually all EU citizens in the UK would meet the conditions anyway.

Brits in other EU countries don't face the same threat to their status (although they have other legitimate concerns in relation to voting, pensions, health coverage etc) because they will have been subject to free movement control mechanisms that mean their residence status is properly confirmed. I have personal experience of this having lived and worked in Belgium (many years before becoming an MEP).

The situation in the UK is causing great stress to many EU citizens. So if an EU citizen tells you they're concerned, please don't dismiss their worries. Also don't fall into the trap of saying "but you're a doctor/nurse/teacher/engineer (insert other highly qualified role/job vital to the UK economy/society), you'll be fine" because right now that's not guaranteed.

Instead, the current government has declared that EU citizens are "bargaining chips"; language hardly designed to make people feel secure. No other EU country has said anything of the sort or made any threat to the British immigrants living within its borders. In fact many are very supportive of British immigrants making citizenship applications (I know Brits in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Sweden who have done or are doing this).

It's time to hold our government to account and demand that they guarantee the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK. We British are known for our sense of fairplay; let's try and live up to it!