One of the most senior British scientists in Europe has made an impassioned plea to the government to reconsider its implacable opposition to freedom of movement, saying it is a direct attack on around 1 million British nationals living on the continent.
Britons living in Europe will be left with fewer rights if free movement disappears, while European passport holders living in the UK will continue to have rights as EU citizens post-Brexit.
Astrophysicist Mark McCaughrean says Britons in Europe have been abandoned by the government and hopes that the Conservatives will concentrate their minds on their fellow countrymen and women before sealing a deal with Brussels.
“I deeply object to the way that the million of us here in the EU27 have been utterly ignored by the British government, along with the 3 million EU27 citizens in the UK. I’m not even sure we’ve been used as bargaining chips: we’ve simply been considered expendable on the altar of increasingly unpleasant rightwing rhetoric and authoritarianism,” he said.
McCaughrean’s situation is emblematic of the plight for all Britons in Europe, the vast majority of whom are there for work, data shows.
He says academics like him, who have spent a lifetime in the UK and overseas advancing our knowledge of the universe, may have no choice but to forgo a British passport and apply for citizenship elsewhere.
McCaughrean, 56, is senior scientific adviser at the European Space Agency’s research centre in the Netherlands and has worked on some of the world’s most prestigious space science projects including Hubble telescope, the Rosetta probe, and the James Webb Space Telescope.
On her trip to China earlier this month, the prime minister, Theresa May, indicated she will fight a proposal to give residency rights to EU citizens during the transition period after Brexit, in a bid to appease the Brexiters who want to see immigration controls from 29 March 2019.
EU citizens already in the UK will not be worse off in terms of rights as they will continue to have freedom of movement if they carry EU passports.
The only people who will lose rights they already have are Britons in Europe who say they will be “landlocked” on 29 March 2019, unable to move freely around the continent for everyday business.
For McCaughrean, this is a personal as well as a professional blow. He has worked for over 20 years in mainland Europe and before that in the US, with five years back in the UK from 2004–2009, always collaborating with other nationalities, the essence of a scientist’s work.
“Doing my job, which involves travelling constantly throughout the 22 member states of ESA, most of which are EU countries, is going to become much harder if I’m treated as an outsider in terms of visas and the like,” he said.
If May succeeds in removing their freedom of movement, the only way Britons living in Europe can guarantee continue to move freely is to get citizenship in another country.
This is an option for McCaughrean, who worked for 13 years in Germany and is likely to retire there with his German wife.
But citizenship is not guaranteed, as Germany only recognises dual nationality for citizens of other EU member states and by the time McCaughrean retires, Britain will be out of the bloc.
Sitting in a vast hall at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, containing models of rockets, space probes and an undulating recreation of the Martian landscape, McCaughrean was quick to point out that he is not feeling disadvantaged, just wronged.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, working for an intergovernmental organisation, and I can live here in the Netherlands until I retire, but then what? Will Germany extend a hand and say you’re a Brit, but you have worked here, your wife is German, it’s OK? We don’t know the answers to any of this,” he said.
“I wouldn’t ever want to reject my country; I feel at home in the UK, it’s part of my upbringing,” McCaughrean added.
But if the Brexit push comes to shove, he will have no choice but to give up his passport, he feels. “I felt completely, completely British in the past, including flying with the RAF and being patriotic, but now if I had to make the choice of [getting a German passport], I would. But I would feel a huge sense of loss though. I would feel devastated.”