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Who’s really to blame for scaring EU citizens?


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I’ve said it before on this website and I make no apologies for saying it again: the furore over EU residents’ right to remain is, to borrow from the bard, much ado about nothing.

No one, whether they be in power, flirting with it, or wallowing in the murky pools beneath it, is looking to deport three million EU citizens. Theresa May doesn’t want to, Nigel Farage doesn’t want to, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want to; the Home Office couldn’t even if it wanted to, and it doesn’t want to, either. The British public get quite upset about the prospect, despite it being, to quote myself, “more subaqueous than the refloating of Atlantis.” It will not happen. It’s not an issue.

Or, rather, it should not be an issue. And yet, undoubtedly, it has become one. It rather puts one in mind of the swine flu pandemic of the late noughties; the one that decimated the British countryside and killed several million people, eventually leading to the collapse of civil society in a rough approximation of John Christopher’s Death of Grass, or Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

If you don’t remember it, that’s because it never actually occurred. And yet, so terrified was it by apocalyptic pronouncements from people who should have known better, the government wasted a quite extraordinary amount of money – some £1.2 billion - buying up and stockpiling vaccines. I don’t know what happened to the 34 million unused doses. One assumes that they remain, gathering dust in the basement of the NHS, watched over by a team of three hundred managers, two thousand assistant managers and one hundred and fifty departmental directors of waste consolidation.

I recall the episode because, like the Millennium Bug, it serves as evidence that the fuss we make about non-issues tends to create many issues of its own. It benefits the cynical, upsets the credulous and generally leads to atmospheres of anger and unpleasantness, the breathing of which causes quite grievous bodily harm.

So I do not think it improper that we ask who it is that’s responsible for perpetuating this latest false prospectus, and I think it only right that, once we’ve identified them, we give them a stern telling off. For the plight of EU citizens is, I’m sure, quite real. Judging by the comments one reads in the newspapers, and the hecklers one hears on Question Time, many are genuinely fearful for their futures. They have no need to be. But they are encouraged in their misbelief, and made to feel worse, by the very people who claim to stand up for their interests.

I speak, in part, about the Ignoble Lords of the upper house of our parliament. But they are not alone. This non-issue would have been settled within the first few months of Mrs. May’s premiership, when she met with Angela Merkel and proposed making the right to remain a precondition of the negotiations. (Or, rather, and as I shall shortly explain, make clear that that right is presumptive.) Merkel, speaking for the Commission, refused. We can all agree that the notion of using people as ‘bargaining chips’ is unseemly, but it’s worth remembering that it is the avowed policy of the European Union, and not the fault of the British government.

But of the Lords. Much has been made of the supposed ‘defeat’ suffered by the government when the ‘upper’ house voted, by a majority of 102, to send the Article 50 bill back to the Commons with an amendment ostensibly geared toward assuring EU citizens of their right to remain.

There are three things to say about this amendment, and rather more to say about the Lords themselves. In the first place, it misleads the public by suggesting that those rights are actually in doubt. They’re not, or they don’t need to be. Secondly, it is by its own logic nonsensical, for it is delaying the passage of the bill that enables us to start negotiations, and so attain the desired assurances. (The EU is quite clear on this point: there can be no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered.) Finally, the listed amendment does not belong to this piece of legislation but to the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which concerns the substantive issues of law and regulation.

This is the bill which will incorporate all existing EU regulations and directives into UK law, and place them under the sovereignty of the UK parliament and courts. Included in those regulations and directives are the Citizens Directive (2004) and the Regulation 492/2011, both of which are concerned with establishing residency rights. In other words, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ simply transfers stewardship of the existing arrangement from the EC and ECJ to the UK, so the act of our leaving the EU has no necessary impact on the rights we will enjoy afterwards, and the right of EU residents to remain (under the existing terms) is as good as presumptive.

(It might be pointed out that the terms of the directives concerned with residency rights are themselves quite strict. We can accept that, for the sake of argument, but what does this say if not that the rights afforded by the EU are not, as EUtopians believe, all that lovely?)

Appending it to the two-clause Article 50 bill – which is concerned with no matter of law save beginning the formal process of withdrawal – is obviously absurd. The two things are unrelated. They do not inhabit the same sphere. The Lords amendment is akin to you refusing to get out of bed on Monday until you’ve decided when and to whom you will be married.

In fact, those in the know believe that the suggested amendment is not much of a ‘defeat’ for the government. Barring any significant loss of control by the parliamentary whips, the Commons will vote against the amendment and it is unlikely – though not impossible – that the Labour peers, who drove the amendment, will push it a second time.

So, given that the so-called defeat is probably nothing more than a token gesture of opposition by the peers, and given that the amendment is unnecessary, and given that it will only delay the securing of the rights it claims to safeguard, and given that EU citizens have the presumptive right to remain in any case, what does this say about the character of those who inflicted it?

It says this: that unelected Lords, vast numbers of them appointed by the unwholesome patronage of Blair and Cameron, and a significant few funded by undeclared EC pensions, are standing on the shoulders of EU citizens, causing them no small amount of stress, pretending to care about them but in fact using them as a platform from which to grandstand in opposition to the declared wishes of the British people, and the duly elected government of the country.

This vast multitude, comprised largely of appointed cronies, many of whom turn up only to get their significant weekly allowance, is deliberately stoking unfounded fears amongst a small but valuable section of British society. They are, either out of gullibility or cynicism (or both), creating the very problem they claim they want to address: upsetting EU citizens and making them fearful for their futures. And the European Union, which still pays many of these people handsomely, is quite happy for them to do it, and to play its own citizens as pawns in a bigger game.

This is wrong, and we should not condone it. Much less should we celebrate it as a victory for the people made to suffer by it. The Lords has a constitutional role, and it has the right to express its opinion and fulfil the function set out for it. And I would not wish it to be said that there are none in that house who are worthy of our respect. But I think we are entitled to ask whether it is right that, in the 21st Century, a body of so many unelected aristocrats and disreputable suck-ups should be able, behind the shield of patronage and a corrupted constitution, to act in such a scurrilous manner.

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