Opinion: What are rights worth if they can be removed?

Members of the BHOV group, which Debbie Williams founded, campaign for rights of Britons abroad

Britons living abroad in the EU were told before Brexit their rights would remain the same if the UK left the EU – but it turned out not to be the case, says Debbie Williams, founder of the campaign group Brexpats - Hear our Voice which has many members in France.

Prior to the EU referendum in the UK in June 2016, the Leave campaign unequivocally stated that the legally-exercised treaty rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU (together known as The5Million) would not change, they would be protected.

These statements were misleading and untruthful.

What those inaccuracies highlighted were that many people, including high-ranking officials across government, did not, and still do not, understand what ‘rights' actually means, nor do they understand the legal treaties that underpin these rights.

Citizens' rights are our rights: they are our civil, political and social rights and they sit side by side with our human rights.

These rights have developed over time, to enable social inclusion and social citizenship, making for an inclusive and democratic society.

Historically, human beings have fought and died for these rights: from LGBTQ+ rights to racial equality, to universal suffrage, to name but a few.

However, there are still many countries in the 21st century without some or all of these rights, one example being the territory of Hong Kong, as we can see right now. The people there are protesting about many inequalities but, above all, the key issue is universal suffrage.

We, The5Million, now find ourselves in a precarious position, where we will have lesser rights than before if, and I say if... the UK leaves the EU.

Our voting rights have already been compromised. 

A large percentage of The5Million were not allowed to vote in the referendum, we were disenfranchised in a vote that directly affected our lives, livelihoods, homes and families. 

This was inflicted on us by a referendum that was originally intended to be of an advisory nature, in a general context lacking in facts, impact studies and plans, and that is still the case over three years later.

What is now patently obvious is that we are in a situation of divergence and inequality.

The UK has a population of approximately 65 million people and from that figure, 17.4 million voted to leave.

In other words, 17.4 million voted to remove rights from The5Million, themselves and, importantly, the UK population as a whole.

There should be an outcry, an outpouring of defiance, but unfortunately it appears that this is either too complex an issue or apathy is prevailing.

The Remain movement and the Citizens' rights groups all understand the implications and what is at stake, especially Freedom of Movement (FoM).

FoM is not about travelling or going on holiday.

It is a life changer, it is two-way (not just into the UK) and is an entrance to a much bigger job market.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to use it know that it's not just for the privileged; it is for everybody, from all backgrounds and walks of life.

We, the British in Europe, are best placed to tell you about it: we are 80% of working age or younger, no longer the stereotypical ‘expats’, we are immigrants. 

Times have changed, we have moved on, we know the benefits of immigration first hand, and how it creates diversity, openness and opportunity. 

Of all the EU countries the UK has the largest diaspora, there are 4.9 million of us living across the world.

We are flexible and fluid, some of us don’t always stay away permanently, Freedom of Movement allows us all to ‘come and go”, to go where the work is.

History shows us that rights should be treasured and protected.

Citizens of a country should never be placed in a position whereby they remove rights from their fellow citizens, or anybody else for that matter.

I call for Article 50 to be revoked now, followed by a government-funded educational campaign, informing people on "how rights work”. Then we may rediscover tolerance and common ground that is sorely needed in this debate, putting people before politics where they should always have been, at the forefront of any political dialogue.

The values that unite human beings are, as underlined by the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

Removing rights from people without their consent is undemocratic, it diverges from all the values mentioned and the opposite effect happens: inequality.

We need to trust in each other again, we need to restore trust in our democratic process. And then maybe, just maybe, we can work together on equality, justice and fair play for all, giving balance and restoring hope again.

In friendship and solidarity, come and support The5Million at Rally for our Rights on Saturday October 12 in London.

Many people may be wondering whether there is any point attending Brexit-related demonstrations. They may feel it is all over bar the shouting.

Not true. For two reasons: whichever way the Brexit decision goes, it is just the start of more negotiations and in addition, important universal rights issues are at stake that transcend Brexit.

Debbie Williams

Founder, Brexpats – Hear our Voice

Castellon Province, Spain 

(Photo: Debbie Williams, in sunglasses, with fellow members of BHOV marching with representatives of the In Limbo project, which publishes testimonies of The5Million of how the Brexit vote has had impacts on their lives).

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