Nearly 3 million EU migrants in the UK face losing the rights and privileges of EU citizens in the UK
Brexit is looming. With some recent polls suggesting a momentum towards Leave, and the Brexiteers in buoyant spirits, the UK is closer than ever before to drifting off into the Atlantic. Though most commentators still believe Remain will eventually prevail, it is now time to consider what the consequences of Brexit might be for those Europeans living in the UK, who, like me, have not acquired British citizenship.
The UK Office for National Statistics estimated in 2015 that there were just under 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, of which Poles constituted the largest group (853,000). Together, there were more EU citizens living in the UK than immigrants from any other part of the world. This compares to 1.3 million UK citizens living in EU countries, mostly Spain.
The 3 million EU citizens living in the UK are predominantly of working age, employed, and contribute to the UK Exchequer. Some have integrated completely into UK society; others maintain a separate cultural identity, with a host of organisations and societies promoting the cultures, cuisines and interests of the nation in question. To compliment longstanding and venerable institutions such as the Franco-British Society, an independent charity with the Queen as its patron, new entities have appeared. One such is the active and successful Federation of Polish Student Societies, a group designed to coordinate the various Polish clubs in the UK.
EU migrants in the UK have also established a political presence in the UK, not only through thriving chapters of continental institutions such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, but through UK-grown societies as well. Labour Friends of Italy garnered the support and patronage of numerous MPs. A number of UK political candidates from across the political spectrum were born in another Member State. Some who do not hold British citizenship have stood and been elected as local councillors. A number of Poles were even selected as UKIP candidates in recent council elections.
The right to participate in the political life of the EU Member State in which a citizen of the Union resides is a core element of European democracy. While there is no right to vote or stand for national parliaments, the right to participate in local and European elections has encouraged integration and contributions to political life. While there is no reliable statistics of just how many EU citizens became councillors, politicians like Ivana Bartoletti proudly fly the European flag in the UK.
The economic consequences of Brexit have been well studied. Disaster is as good a word for it as any. The political have been highlighted as well, with the potential further disintegration of the EU feared by many across the continent. The consequences for EU citizens living in the UK are, however, uncertain. A large number have already been living here for a significant enough time to acquire permanent residency or even citizenship. For the rest, the Leave campaign have been ambiguous about their prospects. Leading Leave figures have come out in support of an Australian-style immigration system, not famed for its welcoming nature.
While mass deportations are unlikely to say the least, the UK will become a much more unwelcoming place for those already here, and work permits will almost certainly be required for new arrivals. Political rights will almost certainly be stripped off: a new and radical right will hardly acquiesce to the continued presence in Britain’s political life of non-UK citizens. Decades of work will wither. There will be fewer EU students, fewer EU workers and fewer EU voices in the UK’s political debates.
This will be to the detriment not only of this newly disenfranchised, but numerically significant minority in the UK, but also of British public life. A different and diverse perspective is hugely beneficial to any sector or industry, let alone a country’s political discourse. Political parties will no longer see the benefit of speaking in their name – they will no longer be voters. Without a voice backed up by actual electoral prospects, whole communities will be excluded from the debate.
To people like me, a Polish migrant to the UK, Brexit poses a threat to our rights unlike anything we have recently seen. That is why, as EU citizens, we need our voice in the Brexit debate to be heard louder and clearer than it has been so far.