On Wednesday the House of Lords, in the biggest vote since it was debating its own future composition in 1999 and by an unusually large three figure majority, asked the government to think again about how best to safeguard the rights of nationals from other EU member states living and working here after Brexit. The government was urged to guarantee those rights of its own free will as it opens negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.      

You might have thought the case being advanced would be given some sober consideration. But you would be wrong. The government instantly announced that it would seek to reverse the amendment in the Commons. And the eurosceptic press proceeded as usual to play the man (or woman) and not the ball. Articles about which members of the Lords receive EU pensions; expressions of contempt for former ministers; criticism of an unelected House by unelected journalists. Hardly a word about the rights and wrongs of relieving from uncertainty several million EU citizens who boost our economy, contribute to our well-being and are at risk of retrospectively being deprived of rights which they had every reason to believe would be theirs in perpetuity when they first came here.

What does the amendment passed by the Lords not do? Well, it does not delay the triggering of Article 50 beyond the government’s deadline of the end of this month. Nor does it attempt to define how the rights of those citizens are to be safeguarded; it merely requires the government to bring forward proposals to that effect within three months.

Does it mean that the cause of our own citizens living in other EU countries has been abandoned or given a lower priority? It does not. If it did, how can one explain why all the civil society groups standing up for our citizens in countries across Europe urged the Lords to press the amendment, regarding it as the best possible way to ensure that the governments of other member states match our approach, and the best way too to avoid those rights becoming bargaining chips in the negotiations which are about to begin?

For what it is worth, speaking as one who has had a certain amount to do with European negotiations over the years, I believe that judgement is right. The transactional approach favoured by the government seems to me fraught with the risk that citizens on both sides of the Channel will indeed, possibly inadvertently, become bargaining chips. And it will likely mean a much longer delay, perhaps two years, before the uncertainty hanging over their daily lives will be lifted. 

Meanwhile, those uncertainties are already depriving us of doctors, carers, academics and those working in sectors of the economy where no homegrown labour is available, as they slip away back to their own countries or elsewhere in the EU where they know they will be treated with more generosity.         

The issues at stake here are therefore not simply moral ones, although those considerations are quite compelling. They relate too to the way in which these extremely complex and difficult negotiations get under way. Do we emphasise from the outset that the overall objective is mutual benefit or do we head off down a path that is all too likely to lead to mutually assured damage to all concerned? 

by David Hannay | 03.03.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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