Don't make threats you won’t keep to, especially when the guys on the other side know you won’t. At best you’ll look a bit silly. At worst they’ll start to doubt the other threats you’re making too.
That’s the big problem with the government’s refusal to guarantee the permanent residency rights of the 3m EU citizens in the UK who don’t hold British passports. It says that it’s waiting for mutual agreement by the EU27 to guarantee the rights of Britons living in Europe before it does anything. That’s reasonable enough, on the surface, but it still doesn’t hold water.
Let’s say some or all of the members of the EU27 did decide to expel some or all of the 890,000 British citizens living in Europe. It seems extremely unlikely that they would, because doing so would be an act of self-harm – those Brits are mostly of working age (only 189,105 are over 65), and EU states charge the NHS for the treatment of British pensioners.
Crucially, it would undermine the principle of freedom of movement in general. As soon as any other member state started to talk about leaving the EU, its citizens abroad would become vastly less secure living abroad, and much riskier hires by European firms.
A Frexit-sympathetic Marine Le Pen presidency, for example, would throw the status of French workers in Germany into doubt, undermining labour mobility across the continent. The EU cannot afford to let its four freedoms be eroded by uncertainty like this.
But suppose they did do that, requiring some or all British nationals to leave. Would we retaliate by doing the same thing? The answer, I think, is very clearly no.
It would mean changing the status of 2.2m people already in the UK labour market, and deporting at least some of them. Introducing visa tests for workers would present businesses that rely on staff from the EU with a sudden crisis. The NHS would face staffing shortages. The City could lose some of its most valuable workers. Retail prices would rise, as the young Europeans who staff many of our high street shops left or faced deportation. Any small or medium business with even a single European employee would face the risk of losing them. Tax receipts would fall, because EU immigrants – especially recent ones – pay much more into the state than they cost.
Most importantly, the human cost would be communities eroded, relationships between Brits and Europeans split up, and perhaps even families broken up.
The government isn’t insane. This isn’t going to happen, no matter what the EU27 states do. So holding back on guaranteeing residency rights is an empty threat.
Not everybody realises that. The main victims are those Europeans living here themselves and the people who love and rely on them, for whom the ambiguity is frightening and confusing. If they go home to care for a sick relative for a few months, having lived here for 10 years, will they be allowed back in? If they put a deposit down on a house, will they be allowed to live in it in two years’ time? They’re in limbo.
Instead of making empty threats, let’s seize the moral high ground. Now that we’ve triggered Article 50, the government’s first act can be to show goodwill, compassion and appreciation to our European residents by guaranteeing the rights to reside here permanently of anybody who was issued a National Insurance number before 29 March. The onus would then be on our European neighbours to follow suit.
Many voted for Brexit to “take control” of our immigration policy. We have control now. Let’s use it wisely.