Thursday, 2 March 2017

On EU nationals, the government should be the bigger man

Yesterday, the House of Lords defied the Government on European Union nationals living in the UK. The Government is seeing this as a defeat, but it should take this opportunity to be the bigger man.

The Government is paying a political price to keep an option which it is never going to use - we are not going to see mass deportation of EU nationals who came to Britain to exercise their treaty rights to work here. But by seeming to keep the option open, the government is damaging its position and Britain's standing in the world. It is incurring political damage to hold onto this option which is of no value. I think there is a better way.

The Government wants to let EU citizens remain in the UK, and for the EU give British people living elsewhere in Europe the same right. It aims to thrash this out during the negotiations, but the negotiations have already begun, and the stand-off over this issue matches the tense, often bad-natured mood developing between Britain and the EU. This isn't in anyone's interests  - our long term aim must be to remain friendly, cooperative neighbours. But in the emotional fall-out of the referendum, all sides risk getting bogged down in a petty, tit-for-tat mindset.

Today is the perfect opportunity to break out. The Government should announce unilaterally that all those EU citizens already living here will be granted the right to remain on the same terms they currently enjoy, and then call upon the EU to match the offer. This would be a big, positive gesture of good will, reassure millions people living in Britain who are genuinely worried about their future, and encourage the EU to reciprocate. All this would cost nothing, because what it is giving up is of no value. No one wants mass deportations, and they are not going to happen, so let's be the first to take that off the table.

This isn't a big change of position for the government, but it would be a big change of tone. Its attempt to frame the debate as "We would love to do this, but the EU won't reciprocate," is trying to put the ball in the EU's court. But it isn't working, and it's making Britain look small. By taking the first step, at a stroke the UK would show willing, reassure the 3 million Europeans working here, make it difficult for the EU not to reciprocate, and most importantly would be demonstrating the positive, open attitude to the world we will need as we embark on our new place in the world outside the EU.

The negotiations between the EU and Britain desperately need a bold gesture of good will. This is it, and UK should seize the opportunity.