Theresa May did at least get to stay for the dinner of vegetable tart, monkfish and macerated cherries before leaving the room as the other leaders digested her proposals for the future of EU citizens in Britain over coffee and mints.
The prime minister is proposing that around 3 million EU nationals in the UK should be able to remain indefinitely after Brexit – as long as British citizens in Europe benefit from an equivalent deal.
While Britain’s policy will be laid out in more detail in a government paper on Monday, May suggested that EU citizens already in the UK and those who arrive during a subsequent “grace period” will be permitted to build up five years’ worth of residence. The result would entitle them to the special category “settled status” – a new term now thrown into the Brexit jargon mix – conferring rights to employment, education, the NHS and other public services and pension rights for life.
What the prime minister has not yet clarified includes such issues as:
- When the cut-off date begins (some time between March 2017 and March 2019 is thought likely);
- Whether the settled status rights apply to EU family members outside the UK;
- Who will enforce the rules – British courts or the European Court of Justice.
If May’s team had been hoping her “fair and serious offer” would win over hearts and minds, both in Brussels and back in the UK, then they will have been disappointed.
After some initially positive sounds from German chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the proposals a “good start,” European council president Donald Tusk was making it clear by Friday that EU leaders regarded the UK’s offer as “below our expectations” and risked worsening the current situation for their expatriate citizens.
Stronger still has been the reaction of UK-based EU citizens themselves, with their main campaign group, the3million, describing the British offer as “pathetic” and lambasting the absence of a lifetime guarantee of the rights that EU citizens currently enjoy.
Individual EU citizens who spoke to theObserver also appeared unimpressed at a time when levels of anxiety and mental health disorders among the same group appear to be on the increase. According to the campaign group, therapists have seen an increase in the number of EU clients in Britain visiting them since last year’s referendum vote. Similar reports have come from doctors and psychologists.
Initiatives being launched in response will include an emotional support service for Europeans, staffed voluntarily by registered psychotherapists and counsellors who will seek to help EU citizens experiencing distress due to uncertainty over Brexit.
“All of my own EU citizen clients have problems with sleeping and are anxious,” said Emmy van Deurzen, a Dutch therapist based in the UK and one of those behind the initiative. “Many are depressed or despondent. I have had several conversations with EU citizens who were suicidal. Others have decided to give up on Britain and have already left the country.”
Back in Brussels, both sides have said they would like the issue of the status of EU citizens in Britain and Britons in the EU to be resolved early in the talks. May said on Friday that EU citizens in Britain should take “reassurance and confidence” from the package, telling reporters: “I want to reassure all those EU citizens who are in the UK, who have made their lives and homes in the UK, that no one will have to leave. We won’t be seeing families split apart.”
However, the prime minister will not have welcomed a contribution from one of her old cabinet colleagues, Evening Standard editor and former chancellor George Osborne, who used an editorial in the newspaper to claim that May was the sole cabinet minister to block a unilateral offer to EU citizens in the days following the referendum that they could remain in Britain.
“If that is true then it is deeply shocking, because it means that all of the proposals from Theresa May mean nothing,” said Dr Tanja Bueltmann, a migration historian at Northumbria University and a keen watcher of the Brexit process from a personal and professional perspective.
For Bueltmann, a key question is likely to revolve around who will act as the arbiter and overseer of any final agreed package. While the prime minister has reiterated her opposition to the idea of the European Court of Justice enforcing EU citizens’ rights, European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said it was “inconceivable” to him that the court could be locked out of such a role.
“The EU’s motivation is, I think, a good one because they don’t want there to be the risk of a retrospective change in five years time by authorities in the UK,” added Bueltmann.
Advocates from the3million said that their initial disappointment at the May proposals still stood after it had been in contact with government sources on Friday.
Maike Bohn, a founding member, zeroed in on May’s use of the term “lawful citizens”, and concerns that the prime minister had not outlined any plans to reform the current system by which the status of permanent resident could be obtained in the UK. “It’s an 85-page form and a very complicated process under which a third of applications are being rejected,” she said. “If she is talking about ‘lawful’ citizens, then up a million people could end up being excluded. We need clarity on that.” But like others, her other big concern was about enforcement of the final deal.
“If there is no independent body involved then it means we are only protected by UK law, and a future government could make major changes,” added Bohn. “We have faith in the UK courts but not in the government.
“And after a year of hostile migration rhetoric we fear that as soon as the UK leaves the EU they could decide, no, they don’t want us to have access to heathcare or other public services as a matter of right.”
‘Theresa May? I’m afraid I don’t trust a word she says’
It was some time after last year’s referendum that Ulrike Gupta said she had found herself making apologies before speaking in public to her children in German.
“Speaking to them in your mother tongue is a very normal thing to do because you want them to learn to speak the two languages, or in our cases three,” said Gupta, who lives in Hertfordshire with her Indian husband and two children, aged three and one.
Now, adds Gupta – an IT worker who has been in the UK since 2012 and has previously studied here, she feels “awkward” due to the perception that many Britons are not entirely enthusiastic about her presence in the country. “It’s a difficult feeling, because we also feel this is home,” she says. “We studied here, we spent most of our adult life here the kids were born here.”
Faced with the uncertainty of Brexit and the impact they fear it will have on everything from their mortgage to Ulrike’s pension – part of which is in the Netherlands – they have begu the process of applying for permanent residency.
“I doesn’t really faze me. Yes, there are lots of documents needed and so on, but for us it feels like a must. We need to do so for the kids’ sake,” she added.
As for Theresa May’s attempts to reassure the 3 million EU citizens in the UK that their future is secure, Gupta is frank: “I don’t trust a word she says.
“I heard a little bit about what she put on the table initially in Brussels – something like she wants to provide a guarantee the 3 million here – but I can’t help but feel that it’s just rhetoric and politics.
‘I’ve tried for a year to understand what happened’
Maria Candela, 47
This summer, together with her Japanese husband and two British-born children, Candela is leaving her home in Orpington, Kent and moving back to Spain after being in the UK since 1996.
“I came to study English,” she says. “I loved the country and the countryside, and really loved London. I got a job and here I am, 21 years later.”
A year ago, she could “feel something was not right in our neighbourhood”, she says. “My son asked me the week before the referendum if we would be kicked out of the country. I got really nervous about it.” Twelve months on she still feels anxious.
“I’m angry and frustrated almost every day,” she says. “I haven’t spoken about anything else for a year.”
The family decided that the time was right to move back to Spain after her husband was offered a placement abroad.
“I’m taking this as an opportunity to go back and have a different lifestyle. I wish I had made the decision a different way. I’ve been trying to understand what happened here for a year and I just don’t get it. I see it as an anti-immigrant vote.”
Candela was not impressed by the proposed deal outlined by Theresa May last week. “It’s not just about the right to live and work in a country, it’s about rights like the Erasmus grants or access to the NHS. I like my freedom of movement and I didn’t get a chance to vote. I didn’t feel this way before, but now I do feel very European.”
‘The impact on my family and dignity is devastating’
Oogoo Maia, 45
The Portuguese teacher first came to Britain in 1995, and settled here two years later.
“I’ve been here working, having a family, paying a mortgage, that sort of thing, but I’d noticed a change in the mood towards foreigners, towards me, since about 2012,” he says.
“I could just tell, speaking Portuguese to my kids, in the pub, on the train. As a foreigner everyone talks to me as if I’m some weird gnome.”
He was not shocked at the result of the referendum. “It wasn’t a surprise to me that there was an outlet for the residual xenophobia,” he says.
“I didn’t go into it thinking this is never going to pass. I went into it thinking this is the tip of a very dark iceberg.”
Following the closure of the department where he worked he has found it impossible to find a job, a difficulty he attributes in part to Brexit and the changed mood he perceives.
“The impact of Brexit on my family has been a total and absolute devastation of dignity and family life. I’m a highly qualified, experienced teacher and I’m unemployable. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs and the only time I get an interview is when I’ve lied about my nationality.
“I’ve been unemployed for eight months. There’s no jobseekers allowance for EU nationals after three months so it’s been food banks for me. I’ve paid national insurance for 20 years but when I need the safety net it’s not there.”
Recently he has been able to find factory work on a zero-hours contract, but his disillusionment with Britain is now complete.
“It’s not the Cool Britannia I came to,” he says. “Now this is a cruel, cold, unpleasant, angry country.
“Your country is going wrong, your country is failing. Stop thinking that your country is not that kind of country. There’s a serious thing happening here and you have to take it seriously.”
He said his circumstances as a supply teacher meant he had not always had a regular income, which in turn had made it difficult to source all the documentation that was needed for his permanent residency application.
‘There seems to be a demonisation of people going on’
Paulo Pinto, 33
Last year’s Brexit vote came as a blow to Pinto, who came to the UK from Portugal in 2004 and has happily settled in Leeds with his British partner.
A year on, he is exploring options that would take away the doubts which Brexit has cast over his future in Britain although the road ahead is far from clear.
“When I looked at the application process for permanent residency I just gave up. Who has got that amount of bank statements going back any number of years, or the exact dates when they came and went?” he said.
As the drumbeat of Brexit has grown louder, so too have his concerns about how British society has changed.
“There seems to be a demonisation of people going on. The rhetoric has really changed in the last year, especially with all the airtime being given to people like Nigel Farage. I find that people now are more likely to generalise and cast aspersions,” said Pinto.
In particular, the notion that foreigners have come to Britain to “sponge” has been a hurtful one for Pinto, who has worked here ever since his arrival and has bought and sold two properties in the country he now calls home.
The uncertainty meanwhile continues to reach into other areas, such as the investment which he and his partner have put into the property they are renovating together.
“We have invested a lot into it and we are doing a lot of the work ourselves but the pound is already dropping, so there’s an impact there too,” he added.
‘There is a fear of getting lost in a bureaucratic maze’
Diana Pantoja, 31
The feeling that EU citizens in the UK are treated as “negotiating chips” has taken a particularly heavy toll on Pantoja, a humanitarian worker based in London.
Doubts about her long-term ability to reside in Britain have resulted in her having to seek psychological support for severe anxiety. “At a certain point it has started to affect my health,” said Pantoja, who is studying for a university diploma as well as working with a British-Bangladeshi NGO.
She hopes to stay in the UK but is daunted by the prospect of applying for permanent residence, a process she and others regard as labyrinthine. Pantoja, who has recently returned from working with internally displaced persons in Iraq, also says that as her work requires her to travel and live overseas regularly, it complicates the process of proving she has resided in the UK for sufficient periods.
“I returned in February, when everything seemed to have changed entirely and the stories had emerged about the difficulties people were experiencing when it came to applying for permanent residency. Brexit began to feel real,” she said. “I want to have the certainty of knowing if I can stay here in two, three years, but there is a fear now of getting lost in a bureaucratic maze. At the same time, there’s also a frustration knowing that the UK should need people from my background as it shifts towards services.”
‘[May’s] fantastic spiel told us nothing new’
Jonas Lovgren, 42
Jonas Lovgren and his wife have gathered together their family’s passports and other identity documents in what they describe as their “OMG” folder – ready to be used in case of emergency. The couple are worried about what sort of future they will have with their children in the UK.
“It didn’t take long last year for the campaign to get really nasty in terms of inflammatory language, and I’ve experienced some very unwelcome comments when I’ve been out with my daughters and have spoken Swedish to them,” said Lovgren. The Swedish music teacher lives with his family in Wales and works in Liverpool.
“It reached a point where my wife put together what we call an OMG folder with all the important documents – marriage certificate, passports – so if we need to flee in the middle of the night we can grab it.”
Lovgren, who came to the UK in 1996 to study before officially moving in 2010, was deeply unimpressed by Theresa May’s proposals in Brussels. “Her fantastic spiel yesterday told us nothing new,” he said. “Basically, it felt like she read out the government website and the details of things we are supposed to be guaranteed to already.”
Aside from asking that the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining permanent residency card be tackled, his other wish is for attention to be given to the tensions and divisions which he believes are now rife in British society.
Interviews by Dan Glaister and Ben Quinn