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Just as cruel as Trump’s ban: where is the resistance to May’s policy on European residents?

As parliament votes for a Brexit plan which doesn't guaruntee the rights of EU nationals living in Britain, where are the anti-Trump protesters?

Anti Trump demo, Edinburgh. Picture, Adam Ramsay.

Theresa the Appeaser, as Mike Gapes MP memorably labelled her, has had to work overtime to square the circle between her fawning to Donald Trump and the evident distaste of most British people for the new President and his policies. Theresa May is not, after all, a Leader, but a Follower, not only of Trump but of the narrow majority of referendum voters (17 million to 16 million) who supported Brexit. (Before that, as a nominal but silent Remainer, she was following David Cameron, who she presumably expected to win the referendum and on whom she would therefore rely for her continued presence in government.)

More particularly, May is now following that section of Leave voters who saw reducing immigration as the meaning of the Brexit vote. Since not all Leavers saw it that way – many took at face value the primary call to simply reinstate national democratic control – she is following a minority of all referendum voters (who are an even smaller minority in the overall population). She has made this the fixed point of her negotiating stance, apparently abandoning for this cause any hope of the UK remaining in the European single market or customs union.

May chooses to inflict uncertainty on Europeans in the UK

Worse, in refusing to guarantee the rights of the 3 million existing European residents in the UK – which even Leave leaders like Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart have supported – May is following those with the most racist interpretation of the immigration issue, who are content for new restrictions on immigration to be visited also on Europeans who in many cases have lived in Britain for years or decades and have brought up families here.

May says she would like to guarantee their rights, but she has to wait to negotiate these rights in return for the rights of British expats in the rest of Europe. No matter that many expats would like her to guarantee Europeans’ rights of residence now, believing that this would give them the best chance of a generous settlement from governments in their own countries of residence.

The referendum result unilaterally created uncertainty, where none existed before, over existing EU residents’ rights. Leave leaders and voters should take responsibility for that, but many voters probably did not pay enough attention to realise that existing residents or expats could suffer. Many who did probably assumed that the Government could easily resolve this issue in an equitable way. Certainly opinion polls show that large majorities of the population, including many Leave voters, would like May to guarantee EU residents rights. 

So, it would be entirely appropriate for May to unilaterally resolve the question, which she could have done as soon as she became prime minister. Instead she has chosen to inflict this uncertainty and all the anxiety it has caused for individuals and families – including hundreds of thousands children of European parents who have been born and brought up in Britain and in most cases regard themselves as British – for six months and counting.

May is cautious, calculating and insincere, in contrast to the impulsive, up-front aggression of Donald Trump. In this sense, one can see what she means when she says, ‘Opposites attract’. But the striking affinity between their policies is a deeper explanation. May’s treating EU residents’ rights as a pawn in negotiations is every bit as cruel and arbitrary as Trump’s ban on the entry of nationals from seven Muslim countries. It affects more people, more insidiously, and it has done so for a longer period of time. It too is ‘temporary’ but with no certainty that it will not be made permanent.

Parliament’s opportunity to squander

Parliament now has an opportunity to pass amendments to the Article 50 bill which would guarantee European citizens’ rights. Amendment NC6 (proposed by the Labour front bench) would grant permanent residency to all EU nationals living in the UK on the day that Article 50 was triggered. Amendment NC8 (also from Labour) would bind the government to ensuring that the rights of both British and EU nationals are protected by any final deal. 

Will May accept these amendments? Will Johnson make an impassioned plea to support them? (Although he is unpredictable, the question answers itself.) Will even twenty or thirty Conservative MPs - less than ten per cent of the total - break ranks to pass these amendments against the Government’s opposition? If not, we can conclude that their party is not only ‘mildly anti-migrant’, as Kenneth Clarke MP, has put it, but indifferent to the needless suffering which May’s stance has caused to significant sections of the population. It might be more appropriate to say that it is mildly – indeed not so mildly – racist.

Conservatives who do not agree with May, like Anna Soubry MP, are already pointing as an excuse to the timidity of the Labour opposition, which has put down these and other amendments without making its support for Article 50 conditional on their acceptance. It is difficult to credit this sorry capitulation, for which the blame seems to be shared between Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson and Keir Starmer, and more broadly both left and right in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour has many of its own Appeasers.

Where is the British Resistance? 

A minority of Labour MPs have taken a much more principled stance, of course, as have the SNP, Greens, SDLP and the Lib Dems, but the latter’s sorry role in putting the Conservatives in power and allowing them to pursue their destructive policies makes them only partially credible.

The opposition to Trump on British streets shows admirable solidarity, but it also feels like displacement activity. Corbyn opposes Trump’s state visit – but backs Brexit unconditionally. His provisional wing, Momentum, organises marches against Trump’s racist travel ban, but is absent outside Parliament, where the Tories are about to uphold, with Corbyn’s connivance, May’s cruel policy against the fellow Europeans who live among us.

Brexit Britain, kowtowing to Trump while discriminating against European residents, has more than a whiff of Vichy. The American Resistance seems to be emerging: but where is the British Resistance?

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 


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