EU nationals – second-class citizens in post-Brexit Britain

Young woman standing in an airport, looking at an announcements board and two large signs: one with a Union flag and an arrow pointing to the left, BREXIT written underneath; the other with an EU flag and an arrow pointing to the right, EUROPEAN UNION written underneath.
In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Vote Leave promised that there would be “no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK” and that they would be “treated no less favourably than they are at present”. Almost five years on, we know otherwise. Photo credit: stux on Pixabay

On 11 February 2021 the High Court ruled that although thousands of EU citizens were denied their right to vote in the 2019 European elections, they will have no redress against the government. As Brighton & Hove City Council’s Brexit lead and as a German citizen, I am deeply disappointed at this injustice.

Why were so many EU citizens disenfranchised in the 2019 European elections?

As former prime minister Theresa May had not concluded Brexit negotiations in early 2019, she asked the European Council to extend Article 50 to the end of October. The decision was taken just six weeks before the May European elections and meant that the UK would participate, even though the government was preparing to leave the EU altogether afterwards.

Because these were the last elections for the European Parliament to be held in the UK, and because EU citizens had not been allowed to participate in the 2016 Brexit referendum, many wanted to make their voices heard in the UK rather than vote in their native country.

However, they faced an extra burden compared to British voters: they had to complete a form confirming they wanted to exercise their right to vote in the UK. Due to the short timescales, many EU citizens were unable to return the form in time. And the Guardian reported three other issues: “councils failing to communicate with EU citizens about a second form; councils not sending out the forms to people who requested them on time; and councils failing to register the forms when they were received”. Only 21% of EU citizens on the electoral register submitted the  form before the deadline, and many were turned away from polling stations on election day.

The government’s lack of interest in ensuring that EU citizens’ right to vote was upheld exemplifies the neglect EU citizens experienced from successive UK administrations over the last five years. Had the government waived the requirement for the additional form, many more UK-based EU citizens would have been able to exercise their democratic right.

Time is running out to apply for EU Settled Status

In just a few months’ time a new disaster is looming: the deadline for EU, EEA and Swiss citizens living in the UK to apply for EU Settled Status (EUSS). Anyone who does not apply (and does not already hold UK citizenship) will automatically become an ‘undocumented migrant’. According to the3million (a campaign group representing EU citizens in the UK), “The consequences for those without status after 30 June 2021 will be serious. People will be faced with the full force of the government’s hostile environment policy, including potential loss of employment, loss of their homes, loss of entitlement to NHS treatment and far more.”

Local authorities like Brighton & Hove City Council have been working hard to reach out to EU citizens and to encourage them to apply for EUSS. We have provided scanners to allow EU citizens to complete their application at Brighton Town Hall (although these are currently unavailable due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions). We sent a postcard to every household in the city to remind EU citizens of the requirement to apply for EUSS. We have run a social media campaign and regularly published information in the local print media. Our website provides extensive information about EUSS and signposts to organisations that can offer further help.

Brighton & Hove City Council is also working with local care providers, employers and immigration advice services to reach out to those who are vulnerable or difficult to reach: for example, older people, people with disabilities and mental health issues, children in care and care leavers.

This is the least we can do for EU citizens who have had their rights stripped away. If you know of any EU citizens who have not yet applied for EU Settled Status, please urge them to apply. If they need help, please check our website and refer them to Migrant Help, Voices in Exile or Citizens Advice.

As a local authority, and as a city that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, we consider EU citizens a vital part of our local community and we want each and every EU citizen to stay in Brighton & Hove. We hope that all EU citizens living in our city apply before the deadline (application portal under this link). But we also urge the government to consider extending the deadline, especially for those who are currently unable to complete their application for EU Settled Status.

Marianna Ebel is a Green councillor at Brighton & Hove City Council. She is the administration’s Brexit Lead and sits on the council’s tourism, equalities, communities & culture committee and its licensing committee.

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