By Christian Dadomo and Noëlle Quénivet
In a cosmopolitan city like Bristol Brexit is bound to have a considerable impact on the local population and businesses. To gauge the effects of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union the Law School of the Bristol University organised on 3 April 2017 a Workshop entitled ‘Bristol in Flux: Suspended Citizenship’. It was not an easy task bearing in mind the high level of uncertainty linked to Brexit and consequently its effect on Bristol communities and UK residents of all nationalities in general. As the workshop gathered a wide range of academics (from the University of Bristol, the University of Exeter and the University of the West of England) as well as representatives of the local communities (eg Bristol Somali Forum, Bristol Refugee Rights), national movements (eg The3Million, One Day Without Us), trade unions (eg UCU, TUC, Workforce & OD North Bristol NHS Trust) and charities (eg Citizens Advice Bureau) it enabled knowledge exchange across sectoral, organisational and professional boundaries.
Christian Dadomo and Dr Noëlle Quénivet from the Bristol Law School, UWE took part in this engaging Workshop. From an academic perspective, the multidisciplinary and practice-based approach was enriching allowing legal scholars to answer questions on the nitty-gritty of the law whilst those working in these local organisations and charities were providing insightful examples of the early effects of Brexit on Bristol communities.
The workshop began with a scoping exercise aimed at identifying first, the Bristol communities as well as individuals more likely to be affected by Brexit and second, the main concerns formulated by these groups. From the initial discussions five themes emerged: (1) the identification of those who are left out of the discussions or maybe too relaxed about Brexit; (2) the possible use of equality and anti-discrimination laws to ensure fair treatment of EU citizens; (3) the precarious situation of temporary workers; (4) the situation of long-term residents in the UK; and (5) the process and practicalities linked to the granting of permanent residency in the UK. As all these issues are complex and interrelated it was decided that rather than each group of participants working on a specific issue and thus potentially failing to address concomitant problems each group would attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of the key issues.
It was in all groups difficult to pinpoint those who were ‘too relaxed’ about Brexit, mainly because of the diversity of such a group. There were for example EU citizens who were unaware of the fact that the legality of their residence and work rights in the UK were related to their EU citizenship. Other EU citizens seem to rely (too much) on the power of their employers, often big companies such as Airbus, to lobby the government for a special status. Yet, as pointed out in the group, classic political pressure via lobbying does not work on a government whose mantra is ‘Brexit is Brexit’ and does not appear to be willing to listen to other voices and make concessions. Further, some EU citizens appear to believe that they are entitled to some rights that they in fact do not have by virtue of EU citizenship and thus have a heightened expectations of the protection they are afforded. With Brexit they might be even more taken aback by the loss of their rights and what they consider to be their rights. In some groups the discussion focused on the EU citizens who had been left out, almost disfranchised from the Brexit debate. Among these were third country nationals with ties with current or prior EU citizens (eg a Pakistani with a French national), asylum-seekers whose situation was regulated by the Common European Asylum System, etc.
Once the UK withdraws from the European Union EU citizens will lose their right to reside and work in the UK which they had obtained via EU treaty law as well as EU directives. The rights of EU citizens, whose citizenship is based on the idea of equality of treatment, might be able to use domestic equality and anti-discrimination legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that they are not treated unfairly. Whilst such legislation might be the product of a variety of EU directives it should not be forgotten that it is also transposing an obligation from human rights law (and notably the European Convention on Human Rights) to prohibit discrimination on a number of grounds. It was thus deemed to be firmly anchored on the domestic level though it was pointed out that the promised Great Repeal Act and the government’s loathing of the European Convention on Human Rights might give the UK an opportunity to repeal the Equality Act and related legislation. It would thus be judicious to campaign for keeping the Equality Act. Despite the existence of the Equality Act and the concomitant legal remedies often discrimination is difficult to prove in court proceedings. Everyday discrimination can take the form of failing to secure a rental contract, to access health care services, to receive welfare benefits or to open a bank account. It would be problematic for an individual to point out that for example his/her inability to open a bank account was due to the fact he/she was an EU citizen rather than his/her inability to show all required documents. To avoid such everyday discrimination from happening in the first place it was agreed that two courses of action needed to be taken. First, better training of those working in a frontline public or private service was required. Often, such individuals take a very strict approach to the law in order to be on the safe side. Indeed, they are themselves worried about the consequences of breaching the law (eg disciplinary and sometimes criminal proceedings against for instance landlords can be mounted against such individuals). In other instances they are simply unaware that EU citizens are entitled to such benefits. Second, the quality and accessibility of legal advice as well as support needs to be increased. This would give EU citizens the opportunity to understand the consequences of Brexit on their personal and professional lives and, after being offered a range of options, enable them to make an informed choice on how to react to Brexit. Sadly, funding for legal services, be they in the form of advice, support or aid, is being cut down for budgetary reasons. Another point raised was that there was a risk of distinguishing and thus discriminating against specific categories of EU citizens based on eg the length of residence, their status as economically/non-economically active status, etc. Moreover, Brexit is likely to create two categories of EU citizens: those who arrived prior to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and those who arrived after. Relatedly, as it is expected that immigration rules for EU citizens be aligned to those that apply to non-EU citizens at the moment (eg Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 migrants), there would be discrimination between those in so-called high-powered jobs and others.
This prompted a debate on issues that affect long-term residents. The debate centred upon two themes: first, the conditions for obtaining a UK status and second, the processes and practicalities of transforming their EU into a UK status. At the moment permanent residency can be obtained by fulfilling a number of requirements. As such requirements tend to be easily met by those in employment for five years the question as to on whom the burden of proof laid or should be laid (ie the employer, the EU citizen or the government) was examined. It was suggested that maybe HMRC records could be accessed by the Home Office to establish that such economically active EU citizens fulfilled the requirements. Another proposal was that employers of EU citizens send, of course with the consent of the employee, employment records to the Home Office. That being said, these requirements are nearly impossible to meet for eg economically inactive EU citizens without private health insurance, individuals who had recent breaks in their careers, EU citizens married to or in an unmarried relationship with British nationals, pensioners, long-term disabled persons, individuals in care homes, etc. There is no doubt that the current conditions for obtaining permanent residency discriminate against those who are self-employed, students, individuals who have been volunteering, individuals who have been in and out of jobs, etc. More generally and covering all EU citizens, the question was raised as to whether the Brexit talks could lead to an agreement on an automatic transformation into permanent residency for any EU citizen in the UK for more than five years. Also the model of sanctuary cities as adopted in the US was suggested as a way to protect long-term residents. On a more prosaic side it was agreed that the application form for permanent residency needed to be simplified and more aligned to similar application forms in other EU States (eg Germany) and that a passport return office should be created in Bristol to facilitate the application process.
The situation of temporary workers was also the focus of some insightful discussions within the groups, mainly because at the moment their fate was very much viewed from an employer’s perspective. Seasonal workers (such as fruit pickers), care workers, contractors, etc are seen as a temporary though necessary workforce without which many sectors of the UK economy could not run effectively and at such a low cost. How they view their own circumstances is often obliterated from the debate on their status. In this light two points were highlighted. First, such individuals having skills and knowledge that can be used and deployed in other States might simply not be much affected by Brexit, for they would go and work elsewhere. Second, whilst the current government has stated that it would ensure continued protection of workers’ rights (see White Paper on Brexit, page 31) doubts were expressed about the fate of seasonal workers whose rights might be slashed after Brexit. Their current status is to say the least precarious and their working conditions poor. —-
Having outlined the most challenging issues of the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union for EU citizens the workshop then focused on how these challenges could be met and how it was possible to support EU citizens at this early stage of the negotiations. The aim of the session was to formulate policy recommendations and action points, with a particular view to shaping future action and potential co-produced research projects. Four groups were created to examine (1) the possibility to create an ‘Employment Charter for Bristol – A Brexit Initiative’, (2) ways to improve community engagement, (3) what could be done in the immediate future, and (4) how communication could be improved. All of them concluded with the formulation of practical initiatives aimed at raising greater awareness amongst Bristol communities about the consequences of Brexit.
Christian Dadomo and Noëlle Quénivet were in Group 4 which examined how it was possible to enhance communication not only between organisations working to support EU citizens in the UK but also between such organisations and EU citizens. Besides EU citizens, the target audience would encompass businesses, universities, local authorities, politicians as well as other key stakeholders. It was agreed that any communication should be based on two principles. First, communication needs to be synergetic in the sense that it required to be well coordinated and take into account positions and actions adopted by other organisations not only in the Bristol area but also nationwide. Second, the principle of transparency must undergird any action: information must be promptly exchanged; it must be easily accessible; exchanges of communication between the authorities and those representing EU citizens must be visible and transparent, etc. The proposed tools used to this effect were the organisation of workshops, the creation of leaflets, the better use of (social) media, etc. Also, with a view to reaching out to the local communities, talks in cafés, community centres, schools, churches, should be organised. What should be communicated to these groups and individuals was the focus of an intense debate in the workshop. Whilst all participants subscribed to the idea of sharing information, organising common activities, instituting a central mechanism to gather information (eg networks), providing information on the current (legal) situation, etc it was unclear what the substance of some of these activities would be. Indeed, in such uncertain times, could we give clear answers to questions raised by EU citizens? Would we be able to shape the public opinion with a view to ensuring that it will support the rights of EU citizens to stay and work in the UK post-Brexit? The group nonetheless came to the agreement that organising a citizen movement, a network ready to take action was likely to be the best course of action in the given circumstances. With the Brexit negotiations starting soon, such a movement could then be quickly deployed.
At the end of the workshop, all participants pledged to undertake at least one action to facilitate the translation of our discussions into tangible changes. Christian and Noëlle agreed to write a blog post on Long-Term Residence and Citizenship as well as to enquire about how awareness about the European Union and Brexit could be raised in schools, notably via the outreach programme of UWE BoxEd.
Christian Dadomo and Noëlle Quénivet have also been invited to participate in another workshop held by the University of Bristol on ‘Projecting Bristol and Britain to a Post-Brexit World’ on 27 April 2017.
The policy recommendations formulated in these workshops will be presented and further discussed at the conference ‘Bristol in Flux – A City Responds to Brexit’ that will take place on 23 May at the @Bristol Science Centre.