Brexit: Theresa May urged to act fast as new poll finds huge support for protecting EU migrants’ rights

Exclusive polling for The Independent reveals that 66 per cent want the Prime Minister to ensure Europeans living and working in the UK can stay on after Brexit

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Sunday 30 October 2016 09:20 GMT
British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May (EPA)

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British people overwhelmingly want Theresa May to immediately guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, an exclusive poll has revealed.

The BMG Research study for The Independent reveals two-thirds of people would back a move to guarantee rights now, giving certainty to EU citizens who have no idea if they can still live and work here after Brexit. Such a move would enjoy majority support across every age and social group, and among the supporters of every political party – except those backing Ukip.

In total 66 per cent said the Government should guarantee EU citizens’ rights immediately if other EU states were prepared to do the same for British citizens living abroad. So far Ms May has signalling that any guarantee should be undertaken as part of formal Brexit negotiations, which do not begin until next March – a timetable that could leave millions of EU and British nationals in limbo for years. Comments by the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox that the EU citizens’ rights are one of the UK’s “main cards” in Brexit talks have caused further consternation.

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Pressure is now mounting on the Prime Minister to act, with former Tory leader Michael Howard even calling on Ms May to make a unilateral guarantee on EU rights now, as evidence suggests high-skilled EU workers are turning their backs on Britain amid ambiguity over their future.

BMG questioned a representative sample of UK adults, initially asking them if the Government should “guarantee the right of EU citizens to continue living and working in the UK post-Brexit”.

In response, 58 per cent said “yes”, 28 per cent said “no” and 14 per cent said they did not know.

They were then asked: “If EU countries are willing to immediately guarantee the rights of British citizens living and working in those countries to continue post-Brexit, should the UK Government also immediately guarantee the right of EU citizens living and working in the UK?” A large majority of 66 per cent backed the move; just 21 per cent said “no” and 14 per cent said they did not know.

Dr Michael Turner, head of polls at BMG Research, said: “People’s views on immigration shape their support for this proposal. For those who say that immigration is the most important issue facing society, just 51 per cent say that May should guarantee EU national’s right to stay, compared to 70 per cent of those who think another issue is more important.

“However, although these groups are least supportive of the proposal, they are also most receptive to reciprocation by the EU on the right for residents to remain. For instance, those who think immigration is the most important issue, and those who identify as very right-wing, see the largest increases in support as the question context changes, with rises of 16 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.”

Support for the move soared to 71 per cent among the ABC1 social group, but dipped to 59 per cent, still a large majority, among C2DE groups, which include low-skilled workers and manual labourers. Dividing the sample by employment status, the move to immediately guarantee rights had majority support among every group except the unemployed – revealing where anxiety about EU immigration is at its highest.

Supporters of almost all the major parties, including the Conservatives, also backed guaranteeing rights now. Only among people planning to vote Ukip at the next election was there a majority (51 per cent) against.

Legal experts have said that the British Government does have the “unilateral” power to grant the three million EU citizens in the UK the right to continue to live, work and retire here post-Brexit.

According to Ruvi Ziegler, a law lecturer at the University of Reading, their rights are not bound to those of the 1.5 million British living abroad.

Lord Howard recently called on Ms May to end the “dreadful uncertainty” around the issue and “lead by example” to guarantee EU citizens’ rights, rather than waiting for EU nations to make the first move over assurances on the status of British citizens living abroad. The French Ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, has said that since the EU referendum her country's citizens have suffered abuse in Britain and feel like foreigners where they once felt at home. She added that many of the 300,000 French nationals in the UK, including highly skilled workers, are now reassessing their future in Britain.

Earlier this month the Romanian Ambassador appealed to the Government not to pile bureaucratic hurdles in the way of his country's people living here, claiming that they feared “administrative harassment” even if they are eventually given permission to stay.

Home Office statistics confirmed that in July, the month after the referendum, the number of hate crimes leapt to 5,468, some 41 per cent higher than the same time the previous year.

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