With the triggering of article 50 and the start of the formal process of leaving the European Union just weeks away, feelings of insecurity are mounting across the EU, including among the 50,000 or more British expatriates in Portugal and four times that number of Portuguese nationals in the UK.
At the time of the in / out referendum last June, the complexities of leaving the EU were far from clear. Since then, the confusion has reached new heights.
Residency rights for the 1.2 million British expatriates throughout mainland Europe, as well as the 2.8 million EU citizens all over Britain, will remain the same while the negotiations continue, probably for the next two years. But what then? Nobody knows.
A recent pan-European survey among British expatriates found a very high level of concern, mainly about losing their automatic rights to reside and work, freedom of movement, and continued access to healthcare and pension benefits.
Ongoing worries include the fall in the Pound and speculation that it could fall further. This is of particular concern to expatriates and foreign property owners relying on incomes or pensions in Sterling.
Worrying to immigrants in Britain, including in Portuguese communities, are the spiralling numbers of anti-foreigner hate crimes since the referendum reported by three-quarters of the police forces across the country.
Brexit belligerence in high political circles significantly heated up this week because of the British government’s refusal to assure EU nationals they will be permitted to stay in the country after Brexit.
The British Home Office’s stated position on the matter is that the government wants “to protect the status of EU nationals already living here and the only circumstances in which that wouldn't be possible is if British citizens' rights in European member states were not protected in return.”
Doubts took a turn for the worse this week when an internal document prepared by the European parliament’s legal affairs committee was leaked. It warned that Britons abroad could face “a backlash”.
The document noted that the attitude of member states’ may be coloured by the fact that it is presently difficult for foreign citizens in Britain, even if married to UK nationals or born in the UK, to acquire permanent residency cards.
Since the referendum, there has been a massive increase in the number of EU citizens applying for permanent residency.
Those applying say they have to complete an 85-page form requiring many files of documentation, including tax statements dating back for five years, plus historical utility bills and a diary of all the occasions they have left the country since settling in the UK. Some applicants have reportedly received letters inviting them to prepare to leave the country after failing to tick a box on a form.
Opposition politicians in Britain have condemned Prime Minister Theresa May for failing to give an unequivocal guarantee that EU nationals can continue to stay in Britain.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of “playing political games with people’s lives”. Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron says Prime Minister May has been caught “playing with fie”.
Caroline Lucas, a co-leader of the Green party, said any further delay in giving EU nationals a guaranteed right to stay would be “unforgivable”.
A Dutch MEP, Sophie in ´t Veld, who is leading a European parliament task force investigating the residency issue, said the UK government had acted “immorally” in failing to offer security to those who had made Britain their home.
The leaked legal affairs committee document hints at possible revenge as it will be down to each EU member state to decide whether British expatriates are allowed to carry on living as before within their adopted countries after Brexit.
The upshot of all this is that a great many people in the British Isles and in mainland Europe are faced with agonising uncertainty about their homes, their jobs and the future of their families.
With Portugal and Britain’s long history of bilateral friendship and co-operation, does it make any social or economic sense for either country to discourage compatible residency and working arrangements?
On a grander scale, does it really make sense to proceed with the so-called “will of the British people”? It is glaringly obvious that the “leave” voters did not fully understand what Brexit would involve – and still don’t.
With this in mind, former prime minister Tony Blair has controversially stepped into the fray. He is calling for a U-turn.
He said: “The people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”