LONDON (Reuters) – Back from Brussels with a hard-fought Brexit deal, Prime Minister Theresa May wrote an open letter to the three million citizens of other European Union states living in Britain.
“I know our country would be poorer if you left and I want you to stay,” she wrote after striking the initial agreement, which promises to secure their British residency rights after Brexit and allows the negotiations to move onto trade relations.
But for some EU nationals – who have endured uncertainty over their rights since the Brexit vote in June 2016, not to mention an unpleasant feeling that many Britons do not want them around – Ms May’s December 8 deal is too little, too late.
It’s too late to keep German nurse Daniela Jones in the chronically short-staffed National Health Service (NHS), where she worked for 35 years.
It’s too late for French psychotherapist Baya Salmon-Hawk, who after 40 years in Britain has moved to Ireland to remain in the EU.
It’s too late for French accountant Nathalie Duran, who is planning early retirement in France because after 31 years as a taxpayer in Britain she objects to being told she has to pay a fee and fill in forms to be granted a new “settled status”.
“I will have to regretfully decline your generous offer for settled status and oblige your lovely countrymen’s wishes and go home,” she wrote on Facebook in a response to Ms May laden with irony.
Ms Duran said the prime minister’s “late outpouring of love” for EU citizens, after years of tough talk on the need to cut immigration, could not mask negative attitudes towards immigrants unleashed by the Brexit vote.
“I think it’s turning ugly,” said 56-year-old Ms Duran. “It’s now okay to say ‘go home foreigners’.”
EU citizens, particularly those from the poorer eastern member states such as Poland and Romania, have complained of increasing hostility from some Britons.
They find themselves accused of stealing jobs from Britons and driving down wages, even though unemployment is at a four-decade low, or of overburdening health services as patients, even though many help to provide them by working for the NHS.
Official figures show hate crimes in Britain surged by the highest amount on record last year, with the Brexit vote a significant factor.
Britain won’t leave the bloc until March 2019, but many EU nationals are already voting with their feet. In the 12 months following the referendum, 123,000 of them left Britain, a 29 percent year-on-year increase.