Paul's Column: the bell may be silent, but the clock is still ticking

29 August 2017

I’ve written a lot about citizens’ rights recently and rightly so, as it has been a big focus of my work as an MEP for the North East of England. At the start of the summer, together with my fellow Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling, I asked for people to get in touch with their experiences as EU citizens living in the UK and as UK citizens living in the EU. The response has been overwhelming.

I’ve heard from a wide range of people - students, nurses, and engineers; teachers, translators and grandparents. Some have suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their neighbours and strangers. Some are understandably fed up with the current state of affairs and are securing jobs in other Member States. The same sentiment was echoed by them all – when are we going to find out what will happen to us?

There have been many poignant stories sent to us. Naomi’s mum suffers from dementia and lost her continuity of care when her favourite carers moved back to their home countries as they were made to feel so unwelcome here. Trish, a grandmother living in Spain wondered how she would be able to see her grandchildren regularly given the rising cost of travel and the fall in her income due to the weak pound. Joan, a Spanish citizen shortlisted for Nurse of the Year is worried for the future of the NHS as EU citizens stop applying for jobs here. So much for taking back control…

The stark reality is that if you do not know whether you have the right to carry on living in the country you have made your home, you cannot make decisions about your future. Want to buy a house? Start a family? Apply for a job in a new area? Retire? Doing all those things suddenly seems difficult when you are in fear of where you will be living, whether your rights will change and are unsure of what your income will be.  It may be an extreme reaction to think you could be made to leave the country but when a vacuum of knowledge exists it is perfectly reasonable to fill it with the most worrying of thoughts.

I dread to think what the impact will be here in the North East, but if the stories I have heard over the last few weeks are anything to go by it won’t be good. We are not a wealthy enough region and we do not have the demographics on our side to weather losing both highly skilled workers and people willing to do entry level jobs.

We could give a shrug and say “don’t worry, it’ll all get sorted out”. However, the truth is that our own government has created the current vacuum. We are over a year on from the Brexit vote and the UK has still not come up with a proposal on citizens’ rights that might even get an airing at the EU negotiating table. The EU27 position paper is clear – EU citizens here and UK citizens in other Member States should have the same rights and protections at the date of the UK’s withdrawal as they do now. This has never been too much to ask but it seems that the UK is intent on continuing the uncertainty. Even Vote Leave didn’t advocate EU citizens having less rights than now.

Our colleagues across the Channel seem somewhat despairing of the unprepared, uncertain and sometimes downright contradictory approach that the UK has taken to the negotiations so far. When the Prime Minister seems more concerned about whether Big Ben’s bell will be chiming than the future of the country and the people who live in it, you know it’s time to worry.

The latest position papers published by the UK government show that some groundwork has been done lately. This gives us some hope that the next round of negotiations might result in concrete plans for a post-Brexit Britain. However, we’ve got a long way to go.

The bell may be silent but the clock is still ticking and with only 18 months left until our EU exit it’s about time citizens here and across the EU are given the reassurance they need.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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