Government spin doctors are busy planting stories that the nice caring Prime Minister who wants all Europeans here to live happily ever after amongst us has been stopped by the wicked witch of Berlin who won’t grant reciprocal rights to Brits in Europe.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, Angela Merkel cannot dictate to other EU countries what their rules should be for the registration of foreigners. For example, in Spain there are 300,000 British citizens who are empadronados – registered on the electoral rolls as full time residents in Spain.
But British embassy officials in Madrid reckon there are up to one million Brits who own a property in Spain, have retired there, come and go doing business, or who study in the country.
Do they all get permanent resident rights? And if so, who lists them and checks on their eligibility?
That is the point every official and politician politely makes in Berlin when asked about reciprocal citizenship rights.
Please tell us how, they say, how many Germans, let alone other EU citizens there are in the UK?
And Theresa May cannot answer this question as we have no register of foreigners and no identity card system as is normal in all other EU member states and Switzerland.
We don’t count people in or people out. So the puzzled Berlin advisor to Merkel on these matters has to report: “The Brits cannot give us any figures, they have no lists, they don’t know if European citizens have been there for one week, one year, or more than a decade. And now they are blaming you, Frau Chancellor, because of the Brexit vote has exposed the failings of British administration.”
The question of Europeans chez nous and Brits over there is also unbalanced. If there are up to one million Brits in Spain, we do not know how many Spanish there are in Britain. We know there are nearly 900,000 Poles here but the number of British citizens living full time in Poland is not a tenth of that number.
So the problem is a bilateral Madrid-London or London-Warsaw one and not a matter for Angela Merkel to decide.
EU capitals are also aware of the extraordinary complexity of applying for British residency with the now legendary 85-page form to fill in and Home Office jobsworths gleefully rejecting European spouses of British citizens who have lived here for years, raised British children, but fail on some minor bureaucratic point.
The Migration Observatory reckons it will take 140 years to process the up to 3.5 million EU citizens here who may seek permanent residence.
So blaming Berlin, the favourite game of eurosceptics for decades, won’t convince a single German politician until we can tell them who is here. We cannot do that and Theresa May should take unilateral action to say Europeans are welcome to stay.
For once, a unilateral British action on a sensitive EU issue would get a warm response.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and a senior advisor at Avisa Partners, Brussels.
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