European Union Citizens' Rights : Speech

 

12 November 2019

The debate is about citizens of other European countries who have chosen to migrate to and make their homes in this country.

However, as the minister said, it is also about citizens of European Economic Area member states, such as Norway, who have not crossed the North Sea permanently but who are able to use their freedom of movement within the EEA to work here and go back to their home countries between trips or between contracts.

That is worth noting, from the point of view of my region in the north-east. Offshore oil and gas workers from Aberdeen are at least as likely to work in Norwegian waters as they are in the southern North Sea, off England or Holland, and Norwegians are just as likely to work here while still living in Norway.

There are other economic sectors in which the same is true. The loss of that freedom of access will be bad news for those workers and for what is surely the highly desirable objective of economic activity in the North Sea that straddles borders.

It is important to bear those workers in mind while we focus on European citizens who have made the huge commitment to leave their own country to come to live in ours. Those citizens are already feeling the effects of the Brexit vote, and they are the focus of Labour’s amendment.

Labour’s amendment highlights the recent report entitled “How Brexit Impacts EU Citizens’ Mental Health And Wellbeing Research Findings” by researchers from Robert Gordon University with support from Feniks. The minister and I were fortunate enough to be at the launch of that report in June. Piotr Teodorowski from RGU, who presented at the launch, wrote about the report in The Scotsman at the time.

The report matters because it goes beyond the legal issues of rights and entitlements to look at what the uncertainty of Brexit actually means for the lives of the people who are most directly affected by it. The evidence came through focus group meetings that were carried out in Edinburgh and Aberdeen and which featured citizens of 13 countries who had been in this country since before the referendum in 2016. The study confirmed just how damaging Brexit has already been for many European citizens who have chosen to make their lives here.

The research highlighted three impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

First, there was the unravelling of people’s future plans.

One witness talked about putting marriage plans on hold because of citizenship uncertainties.

Another witness was afraid to the leave the UK in case it was not possible to get back in.

Secondly—and perhaps most important—there was the sense of rejection.

 

People had been welcomed and made to feel welcome, but, suddenly, there was a public vote in which it was said that they were not welcome after all, and they, as active citizens and taxpayers—many were volunteers in their communities, too—were denied the right to participate in it.

Stuart McMillan: Does Lewis Macdonald agree that those comments echo the evidence that the Fife Migrants Forum gave to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee when he was a member of that committee?

Lewis Macdonald: Indeed; I remember that evidence session well. Stuart McMillan is quite right.

That was at an earlier stage, but that evidence nonetheless reflected how quickly the uncertainty impacted on people’s lives and people’s sense of what they were able to plan for and do.

Some of those who responded to the RGU study experienced direct discrimination as a result of the vote.

Others were nervous at being marked out as different and were unsure how much even we British citizens who were most sympathetic could understand how they felt.

Thirdly, there was a sense of loss through change.

Some participants described that as being like mourning.

First, there was denial; then there was sadness; finally, there was acceptance of their loss.

One talked about taking a different way to work to avoid seeing the endless and depressing headlines about Brexit and immigration.

Others found that the mental ill health that they already faced was made worse by depression about the referendum vote or anxiety about what might happen next.

Those are consequences of the vote to leave the EU.

To some degree, they are unintended consequences.

Many who voted to leave the EU did not think about the implications for EU citizens any more than they thought about the implications for Gibraltar or for peace in Ireland.

However, for others—including some in the Conservative Party—immigration was at the centre of their campaign to leave, and the pain and loss of EU citizens here and of British citizens elsewhere in the European Union were a price worth paying.

The report is one of many reports to confirm just how deeply irresponsible the leave campaign really was.

 

As we all know, what will ultimately happen with Brexit is still to be determined.

 

Whatever the outcome, the underlying sense of rejection for many EU citizens in this country will not simply go away.

 

Even if Brexit is not taken forward, work will still be needed to convince them that they really are welcome, not just by some of their neighbours but by the community and the country as a whole.

The motion that we are debating does not propose an approach in Scotland that is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The minister has proposed that the next UK Government takes a different approach to protect EU citizens throughout the UK in the event that Brexit goes ahead, and that is absolutely right and welcome.

The minister’s party and mine agree on the matters that we are debating today, just as we do on the wider impact of Brexit on people’s human rights.

However, we should not ignore the implications of the debate for other potential referendums, which may also pose hard choices, and where some of our fellow citizens may also feel that they have a great deal to lose.

The report, and many other studies of the impact of the Brexit referendum on European citizens, is clear: hostile intentions are not required for there to be very distressing impacts when it comes to erecting borders that cut through people’s lives.

We should all be open to understanding what that might imply for decisions that we might take now and in the future.