Freedom of movement is now the most important fight in the Brexit battleground

Remainers are unable to rally behind Boris Johnson's plans because they have been offered nothing in return. Letting UK citizens retain the ability to live, work, study and retire across the European Union is the answer

Lee Williscroft-Ferris
Monday 06 January 2020 11:46
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson releases his New Year message

There is a blindingly obvious strategy behind Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit since becoming prime minister – rally Leave voters to back his plans no matter what or risk democracy falling apart at the seams.​

This was achieved in two ways. Firstly, having failed to obtain parliamentary approval for his reheated version of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, he (successfully) pitted people against parliament by asserting that the House of Commons was effectively thwarting the will of the people. Johnson’s catchy – if wholly misleading – election slogan, “Get Brexit done”, resonated with swathes of a weary population and returned him to Number 10 with a majority and an unshackled negotiating hand.

Johnson revealed the latest gambit in his game plan during his New Year’s message. In exhorting Leavers and Remainers to shed the past, come together behind Brexit and ‘be friends’, he was knowingly asking for the impossible, conveniently positioning himself as the enthusiastic peacemaker in the face of implacable, uncompromising Remain fanatics. His followers will undoubtedly lap this up but the reality is this: Remainers are unable to rally behind the prime minister and his pet project because frankly, they have been offered nothing in return.

The 2016 referendum was unusual in many ways, but one outcome stands out as particularly pernicious, especially from the perspective of Remainers. As things stand, UK citizens are set to lose their right to free movement – the ability to live, work, study and retire across the European Union and wider EEA.

Many will bristle at the memory of several high-profile Brexiteers reassuring the public prior to June 2016 that the UK’s place in the single market (and therefore freedom of movement) was not in question. Even more will seethe at the fact that in the years since, the government has needlessly and recklessly pursued a harder version of Brexit on the basis of a knife-edge referendum result, the legitimacy of which remains questionable in the eyes of many.

This is precisely why, with the Final Say vote campaign effectively deadheaded by the outcome of December’s general election, it is absolutely vital that the frontline of the battle moves to the fight to retain freedom of movement – a right many Brits have known since birth. A potential conduit to this would be associate EU citizenship, a concept mooted early in the negotiations by Guy Verhofstadt. This mechanism would allow Brits to opt-in to a form of EU citizenship, presumably at a price.

There is precedent for such a proposition. In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, “no” voters were reassured that in the event of a “yes” victory, their status as British citizens would ideally be safeguarded. There was a recognition that identity is innate and cannot, should not and must not be relinquished at the behest of others who may feel differently. The notion of inherent identity also lies at the heart of the arrangements in place in Northern Ireland, where inhabitants can obtain both a British and Irish passport, depending on their personal inclinations.

With almost one million Brits having applied for Irish passports since the referendum and millions of others desperately looking for potential avenues to retain their precious EU citizenship, the UK is poised to become host to a two-tier system. In this structure, those with one Irish grandparent, for example, will continue to reap the rewards of free movement, while those without are left wanting, regardless of how they voted in 2016 or their level of affinity with our neighbours. The status quo on this matter is unjust and unsustainable.

This fundamental facet of the whole Brexit debate has been largely drowned out by demands for a Final Say vote. With 11 months to go before Johnson’s arbitrary deadline for the end of the transition period, the inequality and injustice of the situation we face must be highlighted ad nauseam and preferably tested in law.

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Remainers have thus far been presented with little to dissuade them of the conviction that Brexit is both undesirable and unnecessary. Despite this, the reality is that a combination of Brexit fatigue and an indefatigably Euro sceptic media landscape make our exit from the EU top table certain. The context has changed and so must the focus of Remainers. They must now regather and re-energise for a relentless campaign of lobbying and awareness raising if they are to stand a chance of preserving what they hold most dear.

If Boris Johnson is sincere in his stated wish to try to heal wounds and end the division that has become so deep-rooted, he should look to associate EU citizenship as the olive branch he needs to extend to those of us for whom Brexit transcends economic or political debate.

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