People are not bargaining chips – that was the simple statement running through today’s mass lobby of Parliament calling on the government to guarantee the residence rights of EU citizens living and working in the UK.
From nurses to businesspeople, hundreds came together to demand that they not be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations around the UK’s departure form the European Union.
A packed meeting in one of Westminster’s wood-lined committee rooms heard Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer stress the party’s commitment to be part of a cross-party initiative that promotes and supports “tolerance [and] openness, protecting and thanking EU citizens”.
The nation could not, he insisted, “be seen to be treating people with such disrespect”.
But he told the room that it is vital not to see today’s lobby as a one-off event, saying: “We need to keep making the case.”
UNISON assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie told the crowd not to be gloomy – that such a wonderful turn out was an indicator of the strength of the cause.
“We’re going to stand together to say this is not a country where we will be divided by political scheming,” he said.
“It’s a campaign that will not go away until people listen and treat all of us with dignity and respect.”
Other speakers included the3million co-chair Anne-Laure Donskoy, who stressed that “apathy was not an option,” as she explained why the grassroots organisation had been set up.
She pointed out that some schools and workplaces were already – illegally – asking for proof of residency.
New Europeans founder Roger Casale urged people to make sure that they used the various elections tin May to find out what the candidates’ views were on EU citizens in the UK – and then use their vote.
He said that some in the Conservative government “want you to be a card in a game of poker,” adding that, while he did not believe that Prime Minister Theresa May was among them, “she has to control her party”.
And he made clear that, contrary to claims from some Brexit-supporting MPs, the campaign to guarantee EU citizens’ rights in the UK was wholeheartedly supported by groups working on behalf of British people living and working in the rest of the EU, who had sent statements of support.
Joanna Cherry for the SNP noted that, “even as” a Scottish nationalist, she could say that what was happening was “not the British way.”
EU citizens “actually make a net contribution to the UK economy,” she added, pointing to public services in general and the NHS in particular, together with Scotland’s agriculture and fishing industries, from the lowliest job to the highest.
Ms Cherry said that “actions and rhetoric have consequences” and, since the “UK has created this situation of uncertainty, so it should make the grand gesture” to guarantee the position of EU citizens in the UK.
Labour’s Andy McDonald and Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesperson Tom Brake also addressed the meeting, with the latter saying he had spoken to his local NHS trust manager and learned that the trust relied heavily on nurses from other parts of the EU – particularly Spain Portugal and Greece.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott conveyed party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s support to the meeting stressing that the campaign was about “a human rights issue”.
After the formal meeting, the room – and an adjoining committee room – remained full into the evening, as MPs met groups of concerned constituents and discussed the issues with them.
Throughout the afternoon, members also arrived to sign a pledge, calling on the prime minister to guarantee, unilaterally, the rights of EU citizens in the UK.