Not for the first time, the UK Government is using EU citizens as propaganda

The UK government ended free movement with the EU on 31 December 2020
The UK government ended free movement with the EU on 31 December 2020

During the Brexit negotiations, EU citizens in the UK were left in limbo for over two years before the UK government agreed to grant their rights unilaterally as demanded by New Europeans and other campaign organisations including the TUC (Trades Union Congress).

This agonising and traumatic experience drove many EU citizens to leave the UK altogether while others sought emotional and psychological support where they could and/or joined one of the many campaign groups that sprung up after the referendum.

Holding the lives of EU citizens hostage served a purpose in the context of Britain’s negotiations with the EU. The future status of EU citizens became a bargaining chip, turning the lives of millions of UK-based EU citizens into collateral.

Instead of being resolved through immediate, comprehensive and unilateral guarantees, the citizens’ rights issue was lumped in with the two other key factors in the negotiations. These were the future of Northern Ireland and the Brexit bill – the price Britain would have to pay for giving up on existing contractual obligations arising from its membership of the EU.

When the figure for the Brexit divorce settlement finally came down to what Theresa May’s government considered to be a politically acceptable level, she announced the EU Settled Status scheme, thus guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights unilaterally.

The Government started to speak about how EU citizens were our “friends, colleagues and neighbours” and should all feel welcome in Brexit Britain. Such warm words again served a purpose, namely to sweeten the next phase of negotiations with the EU.

Three years later, as we approach the 30 June deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status, five months after free movement has come to an end, the government is instrumentalising EU citizens to get their message across once again.

As Nathalie Bennett, former leader of the UK Green Party has pointed out on Twitter, the spectacle of UK Border Police arresting young Europeans on arrival in the UK, is not a good look in the eyes of the international community.

Such ignominy is all the more potent, given that the arrests are sometimes made on erroneous grounds by border staff ignorant of the detail of new immigration rules.  For example, EU citizens are allowed to enter the UK for the purpose of attending interviews.

Locking EU citizens up in detention centres, without access to lawyers or even a mobile phone and then deporting them, even when they offered to pay for their own flight home, begs the question as to whether or not there is a human rights case to be answered.

The UK Home office has now finally issued new guidance to border officials. EU nationals deemed to be entering the UK illegally are issued where possible with immigration bail until they can arrange a flight home (they may have to quarantine first due to COVID restrictions). 

What is going on? Why has the British government behaving in this way (the practice of locking up EU citizens in detention centres on arrival goes back to January)? What message is the Government trying to convey and to whom?

The answer to the first question is very simple. The Government has been using these young EU citizens to make a point. Locking them up on arrival is an effective way to grab attention and put a message across: “Look at us, we have put an end to free movement, we are very proud of ourselves!” EU citizens are being detained in the name of propaganda.

The audience for this message is a broad group of the government’s stakeholders. The message certainly resonates with racist voters, some of whom  may have found a home in the Brexit Party. It also speaks to right-wing voters who may not be racist but who don’t like migration.

It's a message that may also appeal to some traditional Labour supporters who voted Tory for the first time in 2019 as a way of asserting Britain’s “sovereign national identity”.

In this context, it is small wonder that the ‘Independent Monitoring Authority’, set up as a watchdog body to oversee the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, has issued a report to say that EU citizens neither trust the UK government no feel comfortable in the UK.

Daily life in the UK under COVID has been as tough as anywhere, but the added strain on EU citizens of coping with uncertainty about their status and whether they can rely on the UK authorities to protect their rights and their interests is pushing many to leave.

The lack of a physical document as proof of status has seen many EU citizens being refused employment or tenancies even though they have complied with all the new regulations.

Over 40% of EU citizens have pre-settled status only, which means they will have to apply again in the future – many from vulnerable groups have not yet applied at all and are in danger of missing the deadline, putting their right to stay in the UK in jeopardy.

So the Government also has this message for EU citizens: “We mean it when we say that EU citizens without settled or pre-settled status after 30 June are liable to deportation”.

It would be impractical to deport tens of thousands of EU citizens who miss the deadline. So again, this is a propaganda message designed to scare EU citizens who have not yet applied for settled status.

Many have a good reason for not having done so – they may lack up-to-date documents and/or a computer and need help with their application.

Underneath all this, is a barely concealed undercurrent of contempt for human rights lawyers and legislation and above all for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

There is every sign that the British Home Secretary Priti Patel is looking to pick a fight with human rights defenders. That could open a campaign to remove the UK from the EHCR – a long held ambition of many Conservatives.

In the face of such provocation, it is important to remember the difference between a partisan reaction and a response based on unity and solidarity.

The Government’s strategy is to polarise the debate about migration because it believes it has the numbers to win. To counter this, a more measured approach is needed, one that builds a new consensus from the centre, recognising the value of migration.  

One leader who understands this is Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. After the police called off a Home Office raid on two asylum seekers in Glasgow, (on health and safety grounds in light of the community protests), she tweeted this:

“I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees. The day when immigration policy is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament can’t come soon enough”.

Human rights defenders, migrants, EU citizens, and people of good faith around the UK may feel she has a point.  Perhaps the time has come to reject the government’s divisive approach. Not only is it un-Scottish, it is profoundly un-British as well.


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