By Tanja Bueltmann
I jumped the queue. That is what Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the country that I call my home, told me and all 3.7 million of my fellow EU citizens last week.
It was not my skills or talents that enabled me to come to the UK to take up a job here. Nor the fact that I chose the UK to commit my life to because I fell in love with it during my first visit in the early 1990s. Nor my previous experience of the UK as a live-in volunteer in a home for disabled people.
No. Instead, the Prime Minister made it clear that I committed the most British of ‘crimes’ by jumping the queue; a statement that, by implication, suggests I cheated my way in and took someone else’s place. No word about how the freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. No word on how it is entirely in the UK government’s gift to enable immigration from elsewhere in exactly the same way as the freedom of movement; just more vilification of people like me.
When asked about her shameful remarks in Parliament yesterday, all Theresa May could bring herself to say is that she "should not have used that language". This was not an apology. Far from it. It was a doubling down on the original remark, for there the Prime Minister stood in Parliament lying about having protected our rights.
Prime Minister, let’s be clear — once and for all — that choosing to make 3.7 million EU citizens already at home in the UK bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations does not equal protecting our rights. Making promises does not equal legal guarantees that provide certainty for life.
Last week, the outrage after the Prime Minister’s comments was immediate, palpable and loud. From social media to press coverage, the verdict was clear: May’s comments were shameful, wrong and insulting.
But in some ways, the noise coming from the condemnations hid more than it revealed. What good is any of that noise if it is not followed up with actions that help? What good were the many demands for May to apologise when, at the same time, EU citizens all over the country are beginning to take part in the pilot for the application system that will determine their future in what already is their home?
Outrage is the easy part. Taking action to help is the part that matters.
But when it comes to that taking of action, EU citizens are largely still on their own. Some parties deserve praise for their approach, as does the Scottish Government for the way they are using the means they have as a devolved government to support EU citizens who live in Scotland.
The Mayor of London has also done a lot. But, on the whole, we remain what we have been since day one: the main subject in Brexit discussions but forever condemned to passive recipients of decisions that fundamentally impact us. Why? Because we are still considered that proverbial ‘hot potato’— toxic in political discourse, and therefore, best avoided.
This fact is not just shameful but also self-defeating. Consider, for example, Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson’s recent article in The Guardian. Instead of making the case to finally overcome the toxicity of Leave lies around freedom of movement, the two former Home Secretaries suggest it’s best to basically accept them in order to assuage those who believed them.
That is exactly the wrong approach and will only harden lines further. Why? Because freedom of movement and immigration is not the actual root cause of people’s concerns. Austerity, a crumbling NHS, a lack of investment in some regions — those are the issues that need to be addressed. By focusing on immigration instead, the real problems are left to fester even more and will get even worse. No immigration policy - no matter how draconian - will ever help with addressing issues that have nothing to do with immigration.
That we are still faced - more than two years after the EU referendum - with politicians believing that pandering even more to Leave lies is the right answer is truly tragic. I say this, too as a campaigner. Because as a campaigner I know that it is possible to make a positive case for immigration; that it is possible to discuss freedom of movement progressively and show its benefits. That is just one reason why, when I developed my EU Citizens’ Champion campaign, it was also always about raising awareness to enable exactly those discussions.
It works particularly well to engage people when immigration is broken down not to statistics and pound signs to express a value. That approach did not work the first time round. A much more effective route is to focus on how Brexit is personal. And not just for EU citizens who used freedom of movement to make their home in the UK, but also British citizens who went to live in another EU country. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right, so when Theresa May calls EU citizens in the UK "queue jumpers", she is saying the same about Britons who live in another EU country.
Focusing on that personal and reciprocal dimension - on people’s stories - makes a real difference. Think, for example of Nicola, a British citizen who lives in the Netherlands. In light of the Withdrawal Agreement currently proposed and existing regulations, she may soon be forced to have to choose between caring for her disabled husband or caring for her elderly parents.
Or, think of Stefanie. Born in Germany, she has been married to an officer of the British Army for 25 years. Life in the military resulted in 15 house moves and many postings overseas. That means that Stefanie does not qualify for permanent residency and may not be granted settled status either.
These are choices and problems that neither of them should ever have had to even think about. Choices and problems that make many of us question where our home is - and who we are. For me, there are certainly now important points to ponder, namely: what do you do when you have been rejected by the place you consider your home.
Let’s face it, forcing EU citizens in the UK to apply if we want to stay, after having heard our Prime Minister say that all we are is a bunch of queue-jumpers, is not a sign of being wanted.
Tanja Bueltmann is a Professor of History at the University of Northumbria and founder of the #EUcitizensChampion Campaign.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.