Britain is poised to embark on a fraught and uncertain course. Leaving the European Union will weaken the remaining 27 members, and it is likely to set this country on a decade or more of instability. It is the end of a partnership that has brought much more to Britain than can be guessed at from the churlish nature of our relationship, which rarely recognised the wonder of this audacious attempt to mould a community of peace and prosperity from nation states at war for centuries. A largely hostile press made Brussels, just as an early Guardian editorial warned, the default excuse for political failure, economic incompetence and, sometimes, sheer misadventure.
Yet for 44 years, Britons have grown up, or grown old, with the European project; it is woven into our lives. Even those who have lost heart or never believed in the first place cannot now just take back control. They may find they miss some of the undervalued joys of belonging to the club – things like the shorter week delivered by the working time directive, the economic bonus to their town of EU regional funding, the clean beaches on which their children play, and the cleaner air they breathe.
But now the huge, arduous process begins of unpicking the measures that have stitched Britain into the life of 27 other countries, and their lives into Britain’s. It is in the interests of both sides in the negotiations to work to reconstruct a new relationship that does the least harm. The challenge is that Theresa May’s objectives all tend towards a result that will unquestionably disrupt the British economy and likely inflict collateral damage on the rest of the EU. Take the matter of Britain’s continuing financial obligations: they have become a totem for Brexiters who care little for the future of Europe or Britain’s relations with it. They want a can’t pay, won’t pay approach. The EU negotiators, who have it as the top of their agenda, warn that prior commitments are unbreakable. It is potentially a deal breaker. On this, Mrs May has wisely avoided making pronouncements.
The budget is one area that reflects the level of intimacy that grows up in a relationship that has lasted 44 years. Another is the easy flow of citizens from Britain to other EU countries, and into Britain from them. For many remainers, the sense of a shared identity that free movement brought has been one of the great glories of membership. Even those who have experienced immigration as a challenge to their way of life have gained from the doctors and nurses from Germany and Spain, the care workers from Poland; everyone’s supermarket shop is cheaper because of the hundreds of thousands of central Europeans who work in farming and food processing. And everywhere, in science and research, in higher education, the arts and in business, the cultural contribution has felt as important as the financial.
Yet ever since 23 June 2016, the future of the three million EU nationals living and working in Britain, and of more than a million Britons abroad, has been uncertain. These are people who have put down roots, started to raise a family, worked and contributed. Now they are condemned to a limbo of anxiety and uncertainty. In July, a British minister referred to such EU nationals as “bargaining chips”; in October the prime minister talked of them as “negotiating capital”. By December, some people who had been in the UK for most of their adult lives were receiving letters from the Home Office instructing them to “prepare to leave”. And if Britain has sunk low, EU ministers too have insisted that the rights of EU citizens cannot be resolved separately from the rest of the negotiations. The German chancellor Angela Merkel is said to be one of those who did not want the issue settled separately. This affects up to five million people. It is repugnant, in both moral and political terms, to treat our fellow citizens like this.
Now that article 50 is about to be triggered, the fate of all EU nationals who were living in Britain, or Britons living elsewhere in Europe, at an agreed date, should be treated as a matter apart from the other negotiations. Tomorrow, in a joint initiative with France’s Le Monde, Germany’s Spiegel Online, La Vanguardia of Spain and Gazeta Wyborcza of Poland, the Guardian calls for Britain and the 27 member states to recognise on a reciprocal basis the rights of each other’s citizens. The next two years will be tough and no doubt at times bad tempered. It would be wise and right to set a positive and generous tone at the start by reaching a deal on this most human of the many problems ahead.