LONDON — Critics from across Britain’s fractious political spectrum have attacked the front-runner to become the country’s next prime minister for treating Europeans living in the United Kingdom as negotiating chips in the coming talks with the European Union.
“I think it is completely disgusting that you’ve got a candidate for prime minister who seems to think that human beings are bargaining chips,” Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland told Channel 4 News. She met with E.U. diplomats this week and emphasized to them that E.U. nationals were still “welcome” in Scotland.
E.U. nationals are legally welcome in all parts of the U.K. Britain is still a member of the European Union, and the freedom-of-movement principles will apply at least until Britain officially leaves the bloc.
But many E.U. citizens are anxious about their future after last month’s referendum that saw the majority of Britons voting to leave the E.U., a position popularly known as Brexit.
The vote also led to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, who wanted the U.K. to stay in the E.U., and triggered a contest to replace him.
Theresa May, who is leading that contest, has stopped short of promising the 3 million E.U. nationals living in the U.K. that they can stay here indefinitely, suggesting it would be a mistake to give assurances without getting similar ones for British nationals living in the E.U.
When asked in a television interview over the weekend if E.U. nationals in the U.K. could stay forever, May responded: “Well, nobody necessarily stays anywhere forever.”
That unnerved some.
“My own kids would quite like their mom to stay here forever if that is okay,” Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician, said in a passionate speech in Parliament earlier this week. His wife is from the Netherlands, and their three children are half-British, half-Dutch.
On Wednesday, he led a debate in Parliament that saw lawmakers back a motion 245 to 2 in support of E.U. migrants’ right to remain in the U.K. The vote was nonbinding and largely symbolic.
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and prominent “leave” campaigner, supported the motion, telling the House of Commons that he wanted to “set on record that the Vote Leave campaign gave exactly this reassurance to people living and working here, and it is very disappointing this should be called into question.”
Thousands have jumped on social media with the hashtag “IamNotABargainingChip.”
Alan Greene, a lecturer at Durham University, tweeted: “Irish. Law lecturer researching public law and human rights. And even if I were working a minimum wage job instead, #IamNotABargainingChip."
“I’m Portuguese, a scientist and a lecturer, creating and sharing knowledge in the UK for the last 15 years. #IamNotABargainingChip,” wrote Paula Salgado, a lecturer at Newcastle University.
Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary who backs May’s bid for leadership, has said that it would be “absurd” to guarantee the futures of E.U. nationals without a reciprocal deal for the 1.2 million Britons living in Europe.
Those offering such a promise “without extracting a matching promise that Brits in Spain are able to stay there, I think, are selling our people out too cheap,” he told the BBC.
A YouGov/Times poll showed that 72 percent of Conservative Party members — who will play a key role in choosing the next British prime minister — agree with May’s stance.
But she has come under attack from politicians across the political spectrum for not guaranteeing the rights of E.U. citizens as a starting point.
The two other candidates left in the Conservative Party leadership race — Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove — have said that E.U. nationals should be given assurances immediately.
James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, told Parliament that there was “no immediate change” in the status of E.U. nationals living in the U.K. But he insisted that it would be “unwise” to guarantee their status without reciprocal assurances from the E.U.
“Such a step might also have the unintended consequence of prompting E.U. immigration to the U.K.,” he said.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University and an author of books about the Conservative Party, said that May is probably holding back pledges because she thinks she has a real shot of becoming the next prime minister and will be the one at the heart of Brexit negotiations.
“I can understand from the government’s point of view, that we shouldn’t necessarily give away that principle before we’ve ensured that other countries are willing to do the same for our citizens,” he said.
The other leadership contenders were freer to show their negotiating hand, Bale said, because they were less likely to actually be at the table.
“It’s much easier to make promises when you regard yourself as throwing the dice, and you might as well put everything on red. Whereas for May, she obviously has a reasonably good chance of winning.”