European Union Citizenship

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:18 pm on 7th March 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Gethins Stephen Gethins Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Affairs and Europe) 3:18 pm, 7th March 2018

I, too, thank Hywel Williams for opening the debate. Matt Warman and I may not agree on everything, but he makes a good point about trying to have a thoughtful debate, which is what we are having today. I thank him for his contribution, and I particularly thank Plaid Cymru for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject.

As a number of Members have argued, the importance of EU nationals to the UK should not and cannot be overestimated in terms of their financial contribution and, more important, how they enrich our society by being here. I want to live in a society that is made more diverse and enriched by their presence, as is the case in my constituency and others.

Today’s debate is particularly helpful because it gives us the opportunity to discuss our own EU citizenship, which we continue to enjoy for the time being. I hope that the Government will give consideration to the idea of associate citizenship suggested by the hon. Member for Arfon, because the benefits of EU membership work both ways—a point that was often lost during the referendum campaign. We look set to lose the huge range of benefits we receive as EU citizens, and nothing the UK Government have said in this debate or others reassures me that they are on top of plugging the gap that will necessarily appear if we are taken out of the European Union.

I have benefited personally from freedom of movement. I was able to work elsewhere in the European Union and receive the benefits of healthcare. I studied there and took part in the Erasmus scheme because of my European citizenship. If I felt ill when I was living in Belgium, I could use the hospitals—there was absolutely no question about or problem with that—and anybody who visited me had exactly the same rights. I feel every inch a European in my identity. I know that identity is not the main driver of this debate, but we should think about it. Even more than that, however, I value my European citizenship.

As I reflect on my own personal experience, one thing that depresses me about where we are going is that by the end of this Parliament, perhaps uniquely, young people will have fewer opportunities and fewer rights than those of us who sit in this Parliament have enjoyed. We should all reflect on that. Regardless of who is in government and which parties make up this place, it should be—indeed, I think it is—the aspiration of all of us that at the end of any Parliament, young people should have more and better opportunities than those who went before them. That should always be our goal, but through the removal of EU citizenship, we will be taking a backward step. Young people will have fewer opportunities. Retaining citizenship would help. I do not think it would plug the gap entirely, but it would help.

The Minister said that she was waiting for the European Union to come up with some ideas about associate EU citizenship, but the European Union did not get us into this mess in the first place; the UK Government did. The fact that, almost two years on, they are still waiting for the EU to come up with solutions tells us a great deal about the state of affairs in the UK Government. It is incumbent on them to look at our problems and meet the challenges. Members are suggesting plenty of ideas—I do not agree with all of them, and neither will everyone else—and the Government should do more than adopt a wait-and-see policy almost two years on from the referendum.

Gently and in a comradely spirit, I urge the Labour party to do the same, especially on issues such as associate membership. I agreed with much of what the shadow spokesperson, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said, but I encourage him to look a little more deeply into that issue, because we should be addressing it in this Parliament.

There are a lot of gaps to be filled. It strikes me—I have made this point before—that it is not entirely the Government’s fault. Vote Leave campaigned on a blank piece of paper, as has been said a number of times in this Chamber. That is why we still have so many gaps. It is the responsibility of this place to fill some of those gaps, working with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations and local authorities and with other stakeholders. It was an act of gross irresponsibility by Vote Leave not even to bother having a manifesto or a White Paper, which means that we have to fill in the gaps.

In his thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness referenced the single market. Vote Leave and the leavers should have been very clear that we would be leaving the single market. They were not. It is possible—I direct this as much to those on the Labour Front Bench as to those on the Government Front Bench—to leave the European Union and remain in the single market. That is a fact—end of story. That is something that we can do. It is quite depressing that many of us have to keep on saying that. I cannot believe that we have to use up time in the House of Commons to reiterate that fact.