“Flexibility” is a word frequently used by British politicians and pundits these days. Usually, it is about one of the two sides of the Brexit argument: either, the Brexiters urge the EU to be more “flexible”, to give ground on Single Market access or the Irish border. On the other side, there is the demand for the Brexiters to be more “flexible” and recognise that their utopian project needs to be somewhat adjusted to reality. However, there is a common point to both sides: they all represent “flexibility” as a virtue.
To many EU citizens in the UK, the constant invocation of “flexibility” by the Brexiters especially may come as hollow mockery, as they are essentially being punished for this very virtue: they took advantage of the flexibility offered by free movement to come here, but they may have temporarily left the UK, unknowingly casting doubts over their unconditional right to live here after Brexit.
The winding road to settled status
To obtain “settled status” in Britain, EU citizens must show that they have been “continuously resident” in the country for five years. In practice, that means that an EU citizen must not have left the UK for longer than six months during a single one of these five years. Otherwise, the clock winds back to zero – prolonging the uncertainty.
Statistics can only estimate how many EU citizens are affected by the issues that come with interrupted residency. However, especially the younger generation is likely to be bear the burden of this uncertainty. This is, after all, the so-called “Generation Europe”: the young who have come to see the freedom to travel, study, work, and live across the EU as an essential part of their lives. Young Europeans have seized free movement to widen their skill set through learning languages, studying and working abroad. They often did so to get an edge in a competitive job market – let’s not forget that the financial crisis has been particularly hard on younger generations – and to become one of “the brightest and best” whom not only the UK Government is so keen to attract.
Crucially, when EU citizens temporarily left the UK before Brexit Day, they did so in the belief that they could come back any time. An EU city worker may have seized the opportunity to work at their employers’ branch outside of the UK for a few years, unaware that it would come to attract suspicion at the Home Office years later. A student may have done a two-year Masters in another European country before the EU referendum. People may have returned to their home countries to care for their elderly loved ones, not knowing the bureaucratic burden this would cause after Brexit. Until 24 June 2016, they all thought that none of these choices would undermine their residency status in Britain. Their absence did not count against them. No longer.
The Home Office: Too little, too late?
In an attempt to accommodate them, the Home Office is granting exemptions from the “six-months-clause” to EU citizens, provided they can prove that they had to leave Britain for an “important reason”. However, in their current form, the accepted explanations are too ambiguous to offer reassurance: categories such as “serious illness” and “study” are all open to interpretation by the Home Office – an institution not known for its generosity (or rather “flexibility”?) when it comes to interpreting vague provisions.
Potentially thousands of EU citizens may therefore have to wait up to five more years before their settled status is confirmed. Beyond the psychological impact this might have, it could also have practical ramifications when renting a flat, opening a bank account, or finding a job. At worst, EU citizens could fall victim to the “hostile environment” and face complicated processes to prove their right to remain at all. The perfidy of it all, of course, is that this would punish EU citizens for an action they couldn’t consider the impact of at the time and sometimes had little control over.
Six months ahead of Brexit Day, the UK Government could do much more to live up to its promise that every EU citizen in the country will be able to go about their lives as before. A good starting point for the Home Office would be to widen and more clearly define its exemptions on the “six-month-clause”. Additional measures could be taken to avoid the risk of “pre-settled” EU citizens facing discrimination on the job or rental market. This would naturally require the Home Office to invest more resources into their current schemes. However, if the Prime Minister and her government are serious about giving EU citizens currently living in Britain and Northern Ireland peace of mind, they should ensure to take such steps.
In other words, maybe, the UK Government could show itself a little more flexible.