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Citizens’ rights after Brexit: from ‘bargaining chips’ to ‘collateral damage’?

Amidst the political drama coming from Westminster in recent weeks, the issue of citizens’ rights after Brexit now seems to have been nearly eclipsed from public debate. But it is precisely these citizens (EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU) who stand to be affected the most – their lives in some cases shattered – as a result of the political chaos Brexit has brought upon the UK.

Having been treated as simple “bargaining chips” in the Brexit negotiations for nearly two years, EU citizens in the UK and the British in the EU now seem to be completely forgotten, entirely ignored, as we approach the end of this tortuous process, with the potential loss of their rights in a “no deal” scenario being seen more or less as “collateral damage”; “No Deal – No problem” seems to be the approach taken by those wishing to take the UK in this direction, as illustrated by the synonymous hashtag on social media.

The supporters of the latest slogan – in this fight of slogans – cannot make a valid claim to giving much thought to the fate of the five million citizens caught in the Brexit conundrum.

On 12 February 2019, a Goldsmiths Law/Britain in Europe thinktank roundtable event, in partnership with the Brexit Brits Abroad project, took stock of defeats and victories in the continuing battle to safeguard citizens’ rights after Brexit, and looked into the difficult path ahead.

The event brought together academic experts from a range of disciplines, NGO experts, legal professionals and members of advocacy groups and civil rights organisations which have taken an active part in the debate on citizens’ rights after Brexit.

The event attracted interest from outside academia, with those attending including BBC World News Presenter, Kasia Madera, a researcher at the Department for Exiting the European Union and others.

Head of Goldsmiths Law, Prof Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, opened the event, providing a chronology of the legal and political fight over EU citizens’ rights, from the Government’s initial “bargaining chips” approach after the Referendum to finally enacting – a whole two years after the Referendum – the “Settled Status” legislation.

In his concluding observations, Prof Giannoulopoulos stressed how the human rights threats inherent in Brexit were particularly pertinent to EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.

Dr Michaela Benson, Reader in Sociology, Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the Brexit Brits Abroadproject then followed, describing a damaging state of precariousness for UK citizens in the EU, taking examples of British citizens that engaged with her research as part of her research project.

“The lives of some British in the EU have been built around the freedom to move freely in the EU”, she added, a freedom that is by no means guaranteed after Brexit.

You can watch highlights from Prof Giannoulopoulos’ and Dr Benson’s in the following video.

Dr Marie Godin, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at Birmingham University, highlighted the three choices that EU citizens seem to be left with after Brexit: a) settled status; (b) UK citizenship or (c) leave the country – and they’re facing difficult dilemmas regarding all of these.

Prof Brad Blitz, Director, British Academy Programme, Tackling Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour in Modern Business; Professor of International Politics, Middlesex University, argued that the removal of EU citizenship as a result of Brexit could be deemed a violation of Art 8 ECHR, as he had argued in a recent ‘Open Democracy’ piece.

Tamara Flanagan OBE, Head of projects, New Europeans, elaborated on the wide range of New Europeans initiatives since before the Referendum, including working with the European Parliament, UK MEPs, academics and the London Assembly. She also thanked Universities for research in this area.

Prof Charlotte O’Brien, of the University of York, and director of the EU Rights Project, noted characteristically that “damage to EU citizens was inevitable” and that “the UK Government’s prior treatment of EU citizens”, for example in relation to benefit claims, “clearly showed the risks involved” for their protection in the future.

“Transition always causes rights to be left behind, and Brexit is the mother of all transitions”, she concluded.

Dr Adrienne Yong (City University)  explained that “Settled status” was good”, but “only if you were the ‘perfect citizen’”, highlighting how the criminality threshold for deportation was being lowered, and EU citizens faced significant risks of deportation.

Prof Tamara Hervey, Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at the University of Sheffield, spoke about “emergency” healthcare rights. These will not be lost even in “no deal” scenario, she explained, to the extent that these rights came from the domestic legislation of the EU27.

But she also pointed out that there was significant lack of awareness regarding healthcare rights after Brexit, and that it was therefore difficult to expect citizens to be able to exercise these rights.

To discuss this research further please contact Prof Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos at d.giannoulopoulos@gold.ac.uk and/or Dr Michaela Benson at Michaela.Benson@gold.ac.uk