Last weekend the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference voted to support Guy Verhofstadt’s proposed initiative to allow Brits to keep their EU citizenship (if they want to!). Lib Dems believe that with our country split nearly 50/50 on our EU membership, it would be unfair to allow the process of leaving the EU to completely ignore the wishes of the side that narrowly lost and who want to continue with the EU.
But it is not simply an issue of fairness that we are asking for Brits to be allowed to apply for EU citizenship. It is that as liberals and pro-Europeans we believe that this Conservative Brexit Government should not rip away someone’s identity, assuming that that was the wish of Leave voters in a referendum that was won on lies and misinformation (something that former Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings admitted recently).
Many young people are desperate to travel Europe and seek out opportunities to study, meet new people, learn languages and new skills. Can the people who voted Leave deny their children, grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children the right to do this? The fact that 75% of 18-24 year olds voted remain means that young people genuinely do care about their EU citizenship and won’t give up their demands for the retention of it easily.
On top of that, almost two million Brits currently live, work or are retired on the continent. For many of them this vote has caused nothing but panic and confusion as they now have to consider the impact Brexit might have on their families, businesses, property and retirement. These Brits were told by previous governments that they had the right to go and live in the EU, now they have been let down by Theresa May’s administration who has left them in the dark about their futures for now over nine months. I hope that this citizenship initiative offers a glimmer of hope to them.
But we would be kidding ourselves if we think this idea is simply going to sail through the negotiations - while EU citizens rights in the UK are in limbo, it is highly unlikely either the 27 EU governments, or the European Parliament would accept an associate citizenship deal for Brits. If we want a reciprocal arrangement as such we must first guarantee the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Theresa May has kept her cards very close to her chest on this issue by refusing to say what will happen to these people. This is a cruel act by her as this is a humanitarian issue and should be about ensuring human beings are not treated as political bargaining chips. I will be seeking to have EU and UK citizen’s rights to be decoupled from the main Brexit negotiations and dealt with in a separate bilateral deal.
I, along with many of my colleagues here in the European Parliament have received heartfelt letters and emails from British nationals living across the continent and EU citizens living in the UK, of all ages and backgrounds, expressing their fears on how Brexit will affect their identity, livelihoods and fundamental rights. These letters are not just from “remainers”, or “remonaers” or even “remainiacs” as those still adamant about staying in the EU have been called, they are mainly concerned parents and grandparents who now fear for their children’s futures.
Let me be clear, an associate status for EU citizenship is not the Holy Grail. Lib Dems still believe that the people should have a final say on the Brexit deal with the option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper. We voted to leave the EU without any clear indication on where we would go next, we believe the Government should trust the voters to assess the deal on offer and decide whether this what they really voted for. That may mean we exit anyway, but at least as a country we can say, we made that decision in full knowledge of what course Brexit would take us and move on.
There is no doubt that getting the idea of retaining some form of citizenship through negotiations will tough. Introducing a scheme like this would require treaty change and the EU’s institutions will want to consider what precedent this sets. But these obstacles can be overcome, what is crucial now is that the EU shows it can adapt to change and serve the people who cherish its existence and want to be part of its future.
If you support this idea it would be very wise to write to not just UK MEPs, but all the MEPs. The Brexit resolution will be voted on in the European Parliament in a few short weeks and we need to get a majority backing of MEPs to get this idea through the parliament.