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The Guardian view on EU citizens’ rights: Johnson’s warm words are worthless

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The Conservative party is in the habit of seeing the European Union as something that was inflicted on Britain and Brexit as self-defence. Eurosceptics struggle to perceive any aggression in the act of leaving the EU. But for citizens of other European countries the referendum felt profoundly hostile. How could it be taken any other way? Control over immigration was a centrepiece of the leave campaign. Xenophobia was an active ingredient and without it the result might have been different. Since then many efforts have been made to regularise the position of EU citizens in UK law but the underlying condition of anxiety persists.

Last week, the Home Office announced that over one million people have been granted “settled status” – the new legal category that maintains rights of work and residence in the UK. More than 50,000 people applied in the first weekend after the scheme was launched in March. The Home Office advertises that number as if it describes enthusiasm for a popular new product and not a desperate dash for security. The total number of EU nationals in the UK is around 3 million.

is easy to denigrate the government’s technical management of the citizenship question. The system has had bugs – a fast-track digital method turned out not to work on iPhones. There have been outbreaks of an all too familiar Home Office plague: incompetence and indifference to human distress, especially at the border. After cross-party pressure, Theresa May waived a £65 fee for applicants – a spiteful levy that would discourage people from signing up and push those unable to pay into legal limbo. But these things are relative. By comparison with some large Whitehall projects, and in the context of a department with a sinister record towards immigrants, the creation of a mechanism to deal with an issue that did not exist before May 2016 has been almost efficient. Expectations are low and lower still is confidence in the future. The risk that another Windrush-type scandal is lurking somewhere in the bureaucratic labyrinth seems high.

The crux of the matter is not in technical solutions but in the politics that created the problem. It is in the ethics of changing the terms on which people are allowed to continue living in the country where they might have put down roots. It comes down to the state telling people who believed they had rights of citizenship that, as of a certain date, they do not. That is an indignity imposed not just on EU nationals in the UK but on around 1.3 million British citizens elsewhere in the union. It is up to other member states how generous they want to be towards those people but exposure to those vagaries is a consequence of UK policy. The harder the Brexit, the more vulnerable dislocated workers and their families become.

Many Brexiters struggle to comprehend the nature of the offence. There is a view that the extension of privileges, very much like those of full citizenship, and with an easy glide path towards full citizenship, count as adequate compensation. But hidden in that approach is the old loyalty test based on a hierarchy of indigenousness. EU nationals are being told to register as admissible aliens if they want to requalify for the freedom to be at home in a place they already thought was home.

It is irrelevant that Boris Johnson describes EU citizens as friends and promises that their rights will not be trampled. His readiness to pursue a no-deal Brexit proves the opposite. The loss of the transition period contained in the withdrawal agreement that Mr Johnson despises vastly increases stress and economic insecurity. The PM’s pledge will not be supported by legislation because he is afraid to put any bill before the Commons, lest it be amended by pro-European MPs.

Brexit of any kind perpetrates an injustice on EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals elsewhere in Europe. A no-deal Brexit turns injustice to cruelty. And if those people’s long-term security is meant to be guaranteed by the honour of the current prime minister, that is no protection at all.

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