Hostages to fortune

Britain will trigger Article 50 to leave the EU on 29 March. She and her EU partners could, and should, guarantee the rights of their citizens living abroad – including tens of thousands of Slovaks in the UK. That they have not is a disgrace.

Theresa May announced Brexit will start on March 29.Theresa May announced Brexit will start on March 29. (Source: TASR/AP)

The die is almost cast.

Theresa May, the British prime minister, has announced that on March 29, Britain will formally give notice of its intention to leave the European Union, the first sovereign state ever to do so.

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Up to two years of negotiations – and very possibly more – will ensue.

Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens – including tens of thousands of Slovaks – living in Britain, and hundreds of thousands of Britons living in Europe, myself included, will be directly affected.

So far, none of us has been given any assurances about our future legal status.

Read also: Slovakia needs to prepare for Brexit homecomers Read more 

All of the countries involved, not least Britain, have it within their power to guarantee – independently, immediately, and without prejudice to the negotiations – the rights and security of the people affected.

That they have not is a disgrace.

Writing about Brexit in these pages in February, Britain’s ambassador to Slovakia, Andy Garth, declared that Britain is “determined to be one of the most vocal and active advocates for free trade anywhere in the world”.

Leaving the world’s largest and most successful free trade area seems a curious way to go about that, but, in any case, free trade only applies to goods and services.

On the rights of people, Ambassador Garth was more circumspect: “We hope we can agree these arrangements [the status of EU and UK citizens living abroad] early in order to give affected citizens and their families the certainty they desire. And the UK will keep pushing for a rapid conclusion in this area because it is the right and fair thing to do.”

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This statement sounds reasonable, but the sentiment it expresses is morally repugnant.

In essence, it says that tens of thousands of Slovaks, among many others, who were offered – and accepted, in good faith – a promise by Britain that they could live and work there may now be penalised precisely because they did so. The remaining EU members have been no more enlightened. All are insisting that the rights of UK citizens already living in Europe are similarly dispensable, subject to negotiation.

In effect, these people are being treated as bargaining chips.

The irony is that most of them are educated, law-abiding taxpayers – precisely the kind of immigrants that European countries, all of them facing imminent demographic crises, say they want.

To compromise now, politicians fear, would be to risk a political backlash: EU leaders, including Robert Fico, say Britain cannot be allowed to benefit from leaving; post-referendum British ministers are terrified of being cast in opposition to “the will of the British people”, especially when it comes to immigration.

Such fear is cowardly, and fuels the politics of resentment now sweeping Europe.

The rights of its citizens are supposed to be what modern Europe, in whatever form it now takes, is about.

How refreshing it would be if Britain, and her European partners, were to recognise that honouring them without delay is “the right and fair thing to do”.

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