European Union Citizenship

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 7th March 2018.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Brexit), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade) 2:15 pm, 7th March 2018

I agree entirely. As I said, my definition of identity, be it Welsh, English, Scottish, Northern Irish or whatever, is that it is self-ascribed—it is something that someone claims. That is why my party has such members as my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, who comes from London—born in Eltham, I think—but is entirely Welsh and Welsh speaking. That is probably a consequence of marrying someone from Blaenau Ffestiniog, where no quarter is given or expected, but the point is that we have people in our party who come from all over the world, and long may that remain the case—we have no exclusive definition.

As I have said, Gwynfor said, a very long time ago:

“Anyone can be Welsh, so long as you are prepared to take the consequences.”

Those consequences, for us as European citizens, are that we have wide rights to travel, live work and study anywhere in the EU. European citizenship also gives us rights under EU law in respect of health, education, work, and social security, as well as the right to be free of discrimination based on nationality—which, I think, is relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. The assumption so far on both sides, the EU and the Government, is that EU citizenship will lapse at the point of our exit from the European Union. However, EU citizenship did not replace UK citizenship when it came into force. It is additional: the two continue to co-exist, and leaving the EU does not entail the end of EU citizenship for UK citizens.

Unfortunately, the Government, by default, are intent on taking away something that is of significant value to the people of these islands. They should not do so. In fact, they should make the retention of EU citizenship an important central plank of future negotiations. It is something that we can ask—demand—of the European Union; it is something that it is in its power to give, and something that would be valued by our citizens. It would benefit us all, not least by establishing a common status for all EU citizens who live here, including those with Irish heritage and the 3 million or so people who have moved here from EU member states. It would establish a level playing field.

There was a glimmer of hope last year when, on 2 November, Bloomberg reported the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union as saying that the UK was—in the words of its headline—

“Open to Talking About Associate Citizenship After Brexit”

—which came as a surprise to some people— and that that would allow “visa-free working rights” to UK nationals. The Secretary of State said:

“We’ll listen to anything of this nature. The aim of this exercise is to be good for Europe, good for Britain, and that means good for the citizens of Europe and Britain.”

I also note that the Prime Minister said in her statement on Monday that

“UK and EU citizens will still want to work and study in each other’s countries, and we are open to discussions about how to maintain the links between our people.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2018;
Vol. 637, c. 26.]

Perhaps I am over-interpreting, but that seems to me to be potentially code for associated citizenship. We shall see how things develop, but for me it had the flavour of a “get out of jail free” card.

Today I am arguing for maintaining the status quo. We are European citizens and will continue to be so, but obviously I urge the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister even now to pursue their less ambitious line further. For those who ask for a precedent for EU citizenship—and some have asked me for one—I point to the situation when Ireland became a free state. The UK allowed Irish citizens to retain their UK citizenship then, and indeed, as Brexit problems and contradictions have closed in, the Government—from the Prime Minister down—have been lavish in their praise for the arrangements between the Irish Republic and the UK. That is a model of which they approve.

Earlier, I mentioned people of Irish heritage. It is little remarked upon, but those with a qualifying link with any part of the entire island of Ireland through either family or residence—even a short residence in Northern Ireland—can apply for an Irish passport. That applies to millions of British people, including my neighbour Miss Norah Davies, whose passport application I was happy to sign some weeks ago. Her passport has now arrived, much to her satisfaction. I caution Ministers not to tangle with angry older citizens; they do so at their peril. Norah Davies’s link with Ireland through her mother reaches back to the first part of the last century. My link, alas, petered out two generations before hers, and I therefore do not qualify.