An open letter to Ursula von der Leyen on citizens’ rights post-Brexit

, by Chris Powers , Lauren Mason, Madelaine Pitt

An open letter to Ursula von der Leyen on citizens' rights post-Brexit
Several large-scale demonstrations against Brexit and for a People’s Vote have taken place in London since 2016, figuring amongst the biggest in British history. Photo credit: Ilovetheeu, Wikimedia Commons: Licence CC-BY-SA-4.0

Dear President von der Leyen,

We are three young British citizens who have built our lives around the freedom of movement afforded to us by our European citizenship and we are asking you to help us in our fight to secure our rights.

The European Commission is currently in negotiations with the United Kingdom with regard to our country’s departure from the European Union. With the shape of the future relationship hanging in the balance, the issue of citizens’ rights is becoming ever more pressing.

Between us, we have studied in France, Germany and Poland and worked in Belgium, France and Germany. We have all campaigned extensively against Brexit and advocated a more integrated, stronger Europe through our volunteer work.

We wish to draw your attention to four main points: the duty of care of the EU towards the citizens whom it has encouraged to undertake international mobility; the broad and realistic view required of what “citizens’ rights” really entail; what the EU stands to gain from a return on investment in our skills; and the credibility stood to be gained by the EU in the eyes of our generation if it shows leadership in defending citizens’ rights.

Duty of care

First of all, we would like to express our sadness at how casually the issue of citizens’ rights has been treated on both sides of the Channel. Many statements have been issued on the importance of providing certainty, but these have not been followed up with action by the British government or the European Union. We are shocked and devastated to witness the humiliation of the “settled status” scheme rolled out by the UK government, which has forced EU-27 citizens to apply to continue living in the country in which they have built their lives. While we condemn both the scheme and the attitude of the British government which underpins it, British citizens too have been let down by the EU. Ever since negotiations began, all European citizens living outside of their home country, British or otherwise, have been bargaining chips in a political game over which they have no control.

Four years on, uncertainty and anxiety persists, affecting our job prospects, livelihoods and mental health. Instead of passively waiting for a deal to be struck, the EU could show leadership. It could propose an associate citizenship which not only gives British citizens abroad some peace of mind, but can also be used to pressure the British government into treating EU-27 citizens with more dignity. We ask for innovative solutions in these exceptional circumstances and implore you to avoid treating citizens’ rights merely as part of a package alongside measures on fisheries and trade. Given that British residents of the EU-27 moved abroad based on the rights the EU gave them, the EU has a duty of care to these citizens and can do better than to discuss their plight alongside measures on goods and finance.

A broad, realistic definition of citizens’ rights

Secondly, we ask you to urgently reconsider the breadth and depth of what the term “citizens’ rights”, which we have heard so often since 2016, really means. I, Madelaine, raised the issue directly with Michel Barnier when I met him at a conference on Brexit in 2018. He told me that, as a resident in France, I had made a “choix de vie”, a life choice, by moving there and that the EU would protect my rights in his home country. I was 25 at the time and working on a short-term minimum-wage teaching contract - not a situation I would describe as a “life choice”. Regrettably, his answer demonstrated a rather narrow view of the question of citizens’ rights, rather than a broader, more realistic perspective which encompasses our future as well as current jobs and choices. Please understand that not all Brits abroad are 45, married, with a mortgage and a dog. A residency card and some soothing noises about healthcare for whichever country we are currently studying or working in does not go far towards protecting the rights around which we built our lives.

Return on investment in skills

This is all the more pertinent given the extent to which the EU has invested in us, metaphorically and financially, as European citizens. As the Erasmus generation, we have built our studies, careers and relationships around our European citizenship and on the basis of the European dream that was sold to us. The EU has invested hugely in the bright minds of our generation – from Comenius school exchanges, Erasmus university exchanges, Erasmus Mundus Master’s degrees, European Voluntary Service, to the European Youth Event – possibly more than our own national government has. The EU has a duty to follow through on this promise of mobility and exchange. Is it not also in the interest of the EU to get some return on this investment and allow us to continue contributing to the European project through our work and voluntary activities? The skills the EU has nurtured in the Erasmus Generation range from problem solving and multilingualism to flexibility and adaptability, and these have proven to be a huge asset for companies and organisations across Europe. Excluding British people from the European job market, after so much investment in our skills, is counterproductive and avoidable.

Leadership and credibility

Lastly, we come to the EU’s image. The EU stands to retain and gain credibility amongst the young people of the UK by showing some moral leadership on questions around citizens’ rights, and by ‘keeping the door open’ for British Europeans to engage with the rest of Europe, now and in the future. The EU must remember that those people who are most pro-European and believe most in living, working, and collaborating across borders are the youngest. In my work at a British (but proudly European and global) university, I, Chris, assist students and manage young colleagues who were too young to vote in the referendum - yet their futures are the most affected. The day may yet come where they, we, seek the UK’s re-entry into the European project. But for that to happen, the EU must continue to be seen as a moral leader, reflective of the values which we young people hold dear. Right now, young people have goodwill towards the European Union, and to some extent resentment towards the British government for what it has inflicted upon our generation against our will. The UK has a reputation it needs to restore; the EU only has a reputation to lose. If the EU’s soft power is deployed well, young people growing up in the UK will seek mutually beneficial closer ties with the EU over time - but that ‘if’ is incumbent on the EU’s willingness to give them opportunities and keep their faith in the European project rather than turning its back.

Finally…

Our hearts and friendships are very much spread across what was the EU 28, and we hope that our futures will be as well, despite the anxiety we feel on a daily basis about how we can make this happen. While battling against Brexit, an event driven by a small number of powerful political figures pushing a closed-minded ideology via dubious means, young British Europeans have woken up to the importance of Europe and working with our neighbours. Our government will not stand up for our interests; we hope that you will.

We would be glad of an opportunity to discuss the above points with you and your team and remain fully at your disposal. Thank you for taking the time to consider the above points. We wish you all the best in the upcoming negotiations with the British government - we wouldn’t like to have to deal with them either.

Yours sincerely,

Madelaine Pitt

Editor-in-Chief, The New Federalist

Lauren Mason

International Officer, Young European Federalists, Belgium

Chris Powers

Treasurer, Young European Federalists

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