Sadiq Khan’s proposal for Britons to keep their EU citizenship is an unworkable gimmick

John Rentoul
·3-min read
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan being interviewed by Iain Dale at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh: PA
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan being interviewed by Iain Dale at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh: PA

Long ago, I predicted a “Schrodinger’s Brexit”, by which the UK both leaves the EU and stays in it, “with individual citizens allowed to choose which status they prefer”.

Perhaps I should have made it clearer that this was a joke, because it now seems to have been taken up as a serious proposal by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who travelled to Brussels today to discuss the possibility of “associate citizenship” for British nationals who want to retain their EU rights.

Khan is meeting Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, and Guy Verhofstadt, who as the European parliament’s Brexit representative was an early advocate of the idea. Not the idea that Britain should simultaneously be a member of the EU and not a member, I should hasten to add, but the idea of associate citizenship for individuals.

You can see the attraction of the plan, especially for the mayor of a Remainer city seeking re-election. Associate citizenship would be like a less showy way of painting your face blue with yellow stars and shouting at Big Ben, or wearing a “Don’t Blame Me I Voted Remain” badge. Young Londoners in particular would love it.

Khan said: “The prime minister says his job is to bring the country together and move us forward and I cannot think of a better way of reconciling the differences between British voters who wanted to leave, and the millions of Londoners and British nationals who still feel and want to be European.”

That is hogwash cubed. Reconciling the differences? By dividing UK citizens into those who accept Brexit and those who reject it so fiercely they are prepared to assume the notional citizenship of a “foreign” entity?

There is a prior question, however, which is whether the scheme is in any way workable. Unless it is purely symbolic, with associate citizenship simply the equivalent of an “I ❤ EU” sticker, it would mean non-EU citizens enjoying some of the rights and responsibilities of EU citizens. Khan suggests, for example, that associate citizens could, for the payment of a fee, enjoy the benefits of free movement of workers.

This is not going to happen. As Khan’s rival Rory Stewart, the independent Conservative candidate for mayor, said: “This is only a soundbite – the policy cannot work.”

It would mean a new EU treaty, one that would have to be ratified by all 27 member states, some of whom would be constitutionally required to hold referendums on it. Neither Khan nor Verhofstadt has explained why the EU would go to such trouble just to make a handful of citizens of what they call a “third country” feel better.

It might make sense as part of a long-term strategy to persuade the UK to rejoin the EU, except that its most likely effect would be to inflame and divide British opinion. A more sensible route to reintegrating the UK in the EU would be to negotiate Norway-style status for the whole country, by which free movement would apply to all citizens of countries in the EU single market.

Barnier, Frans Timmermans (vice president of the European commission) and David Sassoli (president of the European parliament) ought to tell Khan politely that they will follow usual practice in not engaging in electioneering – and certainly not interfering in an election in a country that is not even an EU member state.

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Britons should be able to keep EU citizenship after Brexit, says Khan