Can Europe Make It?

The future of EU nationals in the UK

Ultimately, the economic claims made by Remain were unconvincing because those in power made them so.

Dylan Brethour
6 December 2016

Participants in a pro-EU, anti-Brexit march pass through Piccadilly in London on July 23, 2016.Wikicommons/Katy Blackwood. Some rights reserved.Is the future of EU nationals in the UK really in jeopardy? As little as a year ago the threat of mass deportations seemed unthinkable.  In the run-up to the referendum, Leave’s official lobby group promised that EU citizens would be allowed to stay. The post-Brexit confusion, however, has muddied those waters. Theresa May has said that she “expects” EU nationals will be allowed to remain ­– hardly reassuring for anyone worried about their future in the UK. The status of EU citizens in the UK is bound up with the existential problem that is Brexit: whether Britain is willing to ignore decades of moral and legal norms in order to separate itself from the EU.

There are currently 3.2 million EU nations living in the UK. As of 2015, only 16% hold British citizenship[i] though applications have been rising in the wake of the referendum. Of that group, not all will have been here for the five years required for permanent residency. On 6 July this year, the House of Commons passed a motion protecting the rights of EU nationals in the UK. The motion, however, is not binding. The government has so-far refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living here, preferring to use them as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations. The government has so-far refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living here, preferring to use them as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations.

It’s worthwhile setting aside the rhetoric surrounding the referendum to ask what that means. If the worst happens, what’s at stake is the widescale deportations of legal residents. Mass deportations are a spectacle more closely associated with warzones than a wealthy democracy. At this moment in time, of course, the suggestion seems absurd. It’s one of the reasons why the government has been able to defend its position – our good faith assumption that power will keep itself within acceptable boundaries. But 2016 has hammered home the message that liberal democracies are not as liberal as they once appeared. The year of Brexit and President Trump is not the time to use deportations as a bluff.

Liberal hubris

In order to avoid the pitfalls of liberal hubris, it’s useful to look at how this situation came about. Much of the referendum campaign centred around economic fairness and opportunity. One of the most powerful claims to come out of the Leave camp is that migrants take jobs. Remain never successfully rebutted the concept of a static employment pool. On the whole, results indicate that EU migration benefits the UK economy.[ii]The question for Remain is why none of this mattered?  A popular response has been to blame ‘post-fact’ politics. It’s true that innuendo, not to mention outrights lies, played a role in the referendum campaign. But ‘post-fact’ assumes a gullible electorate which is easily led by the media. There’s more than a touch of arrogance in that analysis. What’s equally plausible is that Remain fundamentally misunderstood how people evaluate the economy.

In recent years the British left has struggled to square voter anger with the Conservatives’ success in government. England has repeatedly voted for a conservative government that promises social advancement through fair competition. We are, in the majority, a pro-capitalist country. This voter support, however, exists in tandem with frustration over the bailout of the banking sector. Nor does it take much effort to find anger over social stagnation and tax evasion. These issues aren’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. For all of their different solutions, the left and right often come together over these issues. The result is an electorate interested in preserving capitalism while also being angry at the institutions that form its backbone.


What does this have to do with the referendum? The government’s treatment of the banking sector demonstrated repeatedly that it has little interest in greater openness. At the same time, the establishment has presided over an inadequate social safety net. From this, the electorate learnt two things: that large institutions are resistant to reform and that wealth is a finite commodity. These conclusions sound the death knell for any campaign trying to sell the idea that egalitarianism is compatible with a large, often dysfunctional, multinational union. 

The result was a pro-Remain conservative government arguing that sharing equals plenty – while doing everything possible to prove the contrary. Years of austerity demonstrated that, true or false, there will only ever be so much to go around. Leave’s triumph reflects the establishment’s implicit political message: scarcity is at the centre of economic distribution. Brexit says more about the hypocrisy of government than the public’s theoretical disregard for statistics and figures. Ultimately, the economic claims made by Remain were unconvincing because those in power made them so.

When scarcity is the centre of a country’s economic consciousness, it creates resistance to institutions like the EU. Multilateral agreements are premised on reciprocity – the give and take of resources and people. Multilateral agreements are premised on reciprocity – the give and take of resources and people. This kind of expansion invites more and different people to partake in a nation’s wealth. This is at odds with the scarcity model currently at the heart of British economics. Leave voters’ indifference to statistics suggests that the facts they are responding to lie elsewhere.  Their conclusions have little to do with ‘post-fact’ politics. Instead, Remain has been consistently short-sighted in what’s really at stake: the clash between what is being promised and what is actually being said. 

For the left to recover, arguing that migration provides a net benefit isn’t enough. That gain only matters when the wealth created can circulate and labour laws prevent the rush to the bottom in vulnerable sectors. The right would also benefit from re-evaluating its position. Refusing to guarantee the rights of EU citizens will do nothing to protect British workers. Aside from the human cost of deportation, there would also be significant effect on industry. 78% of working age EU citizens in the UK are in employment (compared to 74% of their British equivalents.)[iii] Removing them would significantly impact sectors ranging from the NHS to higher education. London in particular would be hard hit.

EU nationals a litmus test

Having won, however, Leave is struggling to bring any measure of realism to the table. We’ve been treated to the absurd spectacle of the prime minister defending free trade while also playing hardball with the single market. The government is propping up the fantasy that Britain can somehow go it alone while surrendering to the worst and most chaotic elements of nationalism. Trying to sweep up the damage done, as a bare minimum, the government should secure the rights of EU nationals. In order to do so, it will also have to seriously invest in the lives of its own citizens. The future of EU nationals will test Britain’s ability to adapt to globalisation. The country must, at the very least, not undermine its most basic moral tenants for the sake of convenience.

[i] Office for National Statistics


[iii] Full Fact

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