This week, another microcosm of the Theresa May premiership. One of her more pro-European ministers – usually Philip Hammond – says something that reflects the reality that the government is heading for a transition period during which we’ll kind of be in the EU, except without any say in anything. Following that, a post-transition in which we’ll be closely aligned with Brussels, probably still inside the Customs Union. Then, cat out of the bag, May has to appease the Eurosceptics by rattling a stick she has no intention whatsoever of using, ever.
This time round, it’s about the rights of EU citizens who come to the UK during the transition period. May is trying to say that those who arrive to live and work in the UK from March 30, 2019 to whenever the transition period ends shouldn’t be allowed the same rights to stay in the country once the transition period comes to a close. When asked for the specifics on how this would work, May would only say that it’s “a matter for negotiation for the implementation period, but I’m clear there is a difference between those who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is leaving.”
What makes this threat non-believable is several things. One, the practicality of enforcing this. When you’ve had freedom of movement for several decades, how are you going to know who first came here when? Even if you could figure this out, the EU will never agree to it, since this is a contravention of freedom of movement – why wouldn’t employers be put off hiring an EU national when they will have no idea how long it will be before they get possibly get kicked out of the country? And yes, as I say, the EU will never agree to it. The transition has to be the status quo, basically, and this is outside of that. May could insist on it, and who knows, perhaps get somewhere if she was really committed to the idea. But she won’t because she never does. She always rattles a stick and then agrees to whatever the Commission wants that she can still ram past her MPs.
May thinks she can get to spring 2019 by just equivocating on everything, never saying what she really wants to do. This is becoming increasingly untenable.