There is no doubt that, since the Brexit vote, the UK government has acted appallingly on the issue of EU citizens in the UK. It has failed to guarantee their rights, including their right to stay post-Brexit. The government seemed to suggest EU citizens would be used as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations, betraying its willingness to keep EU workers from becoming equal citizens in British society. It said it would give priority to this issue once exit negotiations had begun, but to assign an instrumental role to EU workers in this way is inexcusable. This week, the debate got more heated, as it seems the Lords are likely to challenge the government’s Brexit bill precisely on the issue of EU nationals’ rights.
It was for these reasons that I supported the ‘One Day Without Us’ event at my university last week, as did the UCU union committee I am a part of. Migrants across Britain went on strike for one day to prove their worth and standing as UK citizens. I supported their protest because the government’s inaction singles out people I live and work with for differential treatment and greater insecurity.
The government’s disregard for EU workers is not popular. Theresa May has made a terrible misjudgment. A large majority of Brexit voters support a guarantee of existing rights for EU workers in the UK – two thirds of them, according to the National Centre of Social Research.
This should come as no surprise. Contrary to the media portrayal, the UK remains, relatively speaking within Europe, a tolerant country. According to the EU’s own figures, published in December 2016, the UK is around the average with regard to attitudes towards EU migration, and more liberal than most on non-EU migration. The spike in reported hate crimes immediately following the Brexit vote pointed to some disgraceful actions by dyed-in-the-wool bigots who perhaps felt vindicated by the vote. But thankfully, such crime rates are falling back to their pre-referendum levels. Clearly, bigotry is not the same thing as opposition to the EU. There is no ‘Brexit tide of hate’, and certainly no ‘fascist populism on the march’, as some commentators have claimed.
Unfortunately, it’s not just May who has assumed that intolerance of foreign workers is part and parcel of Brexiteers’ outlook. Many organisations promoting the One Day Without Us strike (including my own union) saw it as a counter to ‘the tide of xenophobia sweeping the UK’ post-Brexit. The local event in my hometown of Canterbury was billed as: ‘Three issues, one voice: support for EU workers, ban Trump, stop Brexit.’ (Unite for Europe, a group explicit in its aim to overturn the Brexit vote, co-organised the event.) The view is that there is a generic hatefulness out there, and we must stand against it.