A pandemic is a long time in politics. So we should not be surprised that our notoriously inconsistent Prime Minister now urges EU citizens to come back to the UK.
Only a few months ago, during the General Election campaign, he was accusing them of having treated the UK as though it were ‘basically part of their own country’.
Perhaps Boris Johnson should ask himself the question which many EU citizens will be asking themselves: why exactly should we ‘come back’ to the UK? Some of those who left at the start of the pandemic did so because they were scared by the way which the UK government did not appear to be taking seriously the evidence before its eyes of what was helping elsewhere in the world. I know of a number of people who chose to return – even to Italy – as soon as they could, because they thought that country was taking more drastic action.
Many of those might well take some persuasion that the UK’s way out of the lockdown is coherent and effective so that it is safe to return.
Even those who might not be so worried about coronavirus may well see the UK’s confused response to the pandemic as evidence of a wider incompetence and failure at the heart of the Britain. The traditional image as a beacon of good governance and social cohesion is one which has been dramatically undermined in the years since Brexit – damage which I suspect may take a long time to repair.
Free to move?
Of course, some EU citizens will still come to the UK during the rest of 2020, while they are still able to do so freely during the transition period. Some will still find the opportunity of higher earnings and a better life in the UK than they could have in their own state (although the differences are not so great in some countries as they were when the EU expanded in 2004). Others will have family or other personal reasons to move.
But there will also be another factor which will deter people coming to the UK – the language of those politicians and media who still talk the language of the ‘hostile environment’ to migrants, whether from the EU or elsewhere in the world. You sometimes wonder if those who talk like that think that people in other countries don’t use the internet, or read the newspapers – or, shock – actually understand English and can (and do) watch the BBC, even including parliamentary debates. But they can – and when they put the pleas to ‘return to the UK’ side by side with the Home Secretary’s proud boast “we are ending freedom of movement”, they are more likely to come to their own conclusion as to the likely trajectory of UK policy.
And that reference to the Home Secretary’s quote about the government’s new immigration bill highlights the biggest reason why EU citizens will find it more difficult to come to the UK to live and work after the end of the transition period, along with others – because UK policy and laws will be designed to deter them from coming here.
Change the language
The mixed message from the UK government towards migration needs to change. Even without European freedom of movement, which realistically is not going to continue for the UK after the end of the transition period, there are many things which should be done to make the UK a ‘welcoming’ and not a ‘hostile’ environment towards immigrants, from whichever part of the world they choose to come. There is a long list of things that the UK needs need to do: I list a few of those which are particularly relevant to EU citizens, simply because that is the topic with which I am most familiar and the area in which I work and volunteer. The government should:
- deal with bureaucratic difficulties which are impeding some EU citizens from being awarded the ‘settled status’, to which they are entitled, to allow them to continue to reside in the UK
- extend the deadline (30 June 2021) by which EU citizens currently in the UK must apply for settled status. That may seem some time away, but the difficulty some may have in getting the necessary documentation together should not be underestimated, particularly because of the long-term chaos that the coronavirus pandemic is causing in the bureaucratic systems of many countries
- ensure EU citizens who get settled status in the UK are given the full equality of treatment which they were promised
- abolish the so-called “immigration health surcharge” – in reality a substantial poll tax whose impact is felt most harshly by the lowest paid migrant workers. As a result of public outrage, the UK government has said they will waive it for NHS and health care workers. EU citizens currently in the UK, who get settled or pre-settled status, are also exempt from the charge and that will continue. But most future EU, and non-EU migrants will have to pay the charge, whose fundamental premise is that migrants are a drain on UK public services and finances. The reality is that they are not: they pay much more into the tax system, which funds the NHS and other public services, than the value of what they receive from it. And, as the pandemic has demonstrated, the NHS and many other public services would not be able to operate without the contribution of immigrants into the UK.
Above all, there needs to be a shift of language, and policy, away from the approach that was so typified by the ‘hostile environment’ policy. And permanently – not just when events lead governments to recognise, for a while, the contribution made by immigrants to the UK, from wherever they come, and then, after a while, return to the anti-foreigner rhetoric which many politicians (world-wide, of course) have resorted to so often.
Featured image: Hostile environment protest, Global Justice Now demonstrators protest outside the Home Office.
Mark Lazarowicz, writing here in a personal capacity, has launched a crowdfunder to back the work of the Citizens Rights Project https://citizensrightsproject.org/, which supports EU citizens in Scotland.