Illustration of EU green card
© Sam Falconer

British people have a sense of fair play and natural justice, a quality underlined once again by a recent opinion poll which found two-thirds of those surveyed wanted the government to guarantee, immediately, the continuing rights of EU citizens living in the UK and, as a concomitant, the rights of British nationals in the EU.

This finding, with only 21 per cent of those questioned opposed, stems from the belief that those from elsewhere in the EU who live and work in Britain should not have lives and livelihoods left in limbo because Theresa May, the prime minister, refuses to guarantee whether they can stay in the UK, with their rights protected, after Brexit — or have to pack up and head across the English Channel.

This research also rejects the idea, advanced by ministers such as Liam Fox, international trade secretary, that the future of EU citizens in the UK, not to mention UK nationals in the EU, should be used as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations, reducing people to bids in a high-stakes poker game.

What means could be adopted to provide UK nationals and EU citizens with the protection they need once Britain’s divorce with the EU becomes reality? My organisation, New Europeans, was founded before last year’s referendum to speak up for EU citizens. We would like to see serious consideration given to our idea for a new category of European citizenship. This would not be based, as at present, on having the nationality of an EU member state, but rather on legal residency. A Europe-wide ‘green card’ for Brits would guarantee their right to reside and work. Parallel arrangements would be put in place for EU citizens legally resident in the UK.

Is this the continuation of free movement of people by other means? Yes, to an extent — although the green card concept that operates in the US provides for checks and balances on the movement of people. We would like to see the green card concept extended to include all qualifying third-country nationals living in the EU, not just UK nationals living there.

Maintaining this freedom is in the UK’s interest. The 3m EU citizens currently living and working here pay more in taxes than they withdraw in benefits, contributing some £2bn annually to the Treasury. Conversely, many of the 1.3m British expats living abroad, principally in Spain and France, are retirees who make use of local health services. The British economy benefits from EU nationals working here far more than Spanish and French economies benefit from Brits living there. This fact seems to have escaped those who subscribe to the “bargaining chip” argument. They are, perhaps, not very accomplished poker players.

The poll research on this matter found that, with the exception of acknowledged UK Independence party voters, those supporting all major parties were in favour of moves to guarantee immediate rights to EU citizens and UK nationals in Europe. Even among Ukip supporters, those opposing this commanded a slim 51 per cent majority. The social status of those surveyed showed that granting rights was supported by 71 per cent of ABC1s and 59 per cent in C2DE groups, which includes low-skilled workers who, mythmakers would have us believe, have most to lose from foreign workers.

Immigration from Europe is fuelling UK economic growth, making it the jobs factory of Europe, which benefits from a record number of British citizens in work. The government must find a way to ensure it continues after Brexit.

The writer is founder and CEO of the New Europeans campaign group

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