LONDON — Well, that didn’t go down well.
The British government on Friday was criticized for poor taste and bad timing after posting a video informing European Union citizens of the steps they will need to take if they want to “continue living” in Britain after the country leaves the E.U.
“EU citizens and their families will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to continue living in the UK after 31 December 2020,” the Home Office said in a tweet posted Thursday.
Glad tidings, it was not.
A group called the3million, campaigning for the rights of the 3 million E.U. citizens who live in Britain accused the government of “poor timing” by announcing, over the holidays, that they will have to register and pay if they wish to stay.
Free movement of people is one of the key pillars of the E.U., a bloc of 28 countries. For decades, citizens from other E.U. member states could simply buy a plane ticket, stuff clothes in a suitcase, and move to another E.U. country — no special visa needed. Many E.U. citizens planted deep roots in Britain, acquiring spouses, mortgages and pets along the way.
Concerns over immigration were one of the key drivers behind the Brexit vote in 2016, and even though attitudes appear to have dramatically mellowed since then, British Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear she wants free movement of people to end after Britain leaves the bloc. What happens to the 3 million E.U. citizens who live in Britain — and the 1 million British citizens living in the E.U. — has been one of the most prominent issues in the Brexit negotiations.
In June, the British government announced that E.U. citizens living in Britain will have to apply to stay. But E.U. citizens this week have criticized the upbeat tone of the new Home Office video, its timing and the need to “pay to stay.”
The new settlement status scheme is being tested, and the government says it will be fully up and running as of March 30, the day after Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc. E.U. citizens will need to apply for settlement status before the end of June 2021.
The cost will be 65 pounds for an adult and half that amount for children younger than 16. It will be free for those who already have indefinite leave to remain or a permanent resident card. According to the Home Office video, E.U. citizens will need to provide proof of identity and residence, and allow checks on whether they have a criminal record.
Once free movement of people stops, E.U. citizens in Britain will need to be able to prove they have the right to be here. Britain’s Home Office faces the task of registering more than 3 million E.U. citizens if those who are here wish to stay after Brexit.
Sajid Javid, the department’s secretary, has previously said the government would streamline the process and that its “default” stance will be to approve applications. He has also insisted the government has learned from mistakes made in the Windrush scandal, when people who immigrated to Britain from the Caribbean years ago recently found themselves facing new documentation requirements.
When asked about the criticism, the Home Office said in an emailed statement that “E.U. citizens make a huge contribution to our economy and to our society and we want them to stay.”
“It is vital that E.U. citizens and their family members know their rights and entitlements are protected, and understand what to do when the Settlement Scheme goes live in March 2019,” the statement said.
The fees are not huge, certainly not compared with what non-E.U. citizens pay to settle in Britain. But the fact that E.U. citizens will have to register and pay to demonstrate a right to something they thought was unquestioned has upset many.
One Twitter user wrote: “Charging people £65 per person, so £260 for a family of 4, just to stay living in their own homes as they already do today. What an absolute disgrace.”
“24 years served in the military and I have to apply and pay for my Slovakian wife and son to have the right to stay here,” tweeted another. “Disgusted and angry don’t come close to how I feel. People need to wake up and realise what the UK has become!!”
Opposition lawmakers also blasted the tone of the video.
Stella Creasy, a Labour lawmaker, tweeted: “A ‘jolly’ message this Christmas from govt to say Brexit means we want to charge you to live in the country you have made your home and contributed so much to over decades. EU friends and neighbours — you deserve so much better than this.”
Pete Wishart, an SNP lawmaker, tweeted: “The nauseating ‘you’ll have to pay to stay or you’re out’ Home Office video is a casual part of the Brexit discourse. Immigration is the cold beating heart of the case for Brexit. There are leavers to pander to and people to unsettle. This is the future of Brexitised UK”
“This is just awful,” tweeted Fraser Nelson, editor of the conservative Spectator magazine. Noting that “of course there will be paperwork to be done,” he added that the “sinister tone (and hint at deportation) is unforgivable.”