Brexit ‘rewriting history of Europeans in the UK’ – Interview with the3million CEO

On June 23rd 2016 the life of EU citizens in the UK took a sudden turn. In a dramatic referendum, the UK voted to leave the European Union. The decision to detach from the EU legal system and to end free movement of people with the bloc left EU citizens in the country in a state of uncertainty about their legal position.

A group of distressed EU residents in Bristol quickly met to understand what might happen and prepare to defend the rights of fellow EU nationals. It was estimated that three million EU citizens were living in the UK. The group therefore chose the3million as its name.

Among the founders there was Nicolas Hatton, a French national who is now the CEO of the organisation. In this interview with Europe Street, Hatton recalls those early days, discusses the current status of EU citizens in the UK and denounces the ‘rewriting of history’ about Europeans in the country.

Europe Street News article announcing the launch of the3million in 2016

What do you remember of 23 June 2016, the day of the referendum?

I felt like someone had died in my family. I was completely shocked. Unlike others, I didn’t expect the result of the referendum. I thought the British public would come to their senses. I was frustrated that we [EU citizens] could not vote and before the referendum I did write an article for a local newspaper asking British friends to consider the fate of EU citizens when they voted. At the time I was working for a private company, a FTSE company, doing marketing. I had no idea that 6 years on I would be running the largest organisation on EU citizens in the UK.

As an initial reaction to the vote, I organised a meeting for the French community in Bristol. I invited French Senator Olivier Cadic and an immigration lawyer, but three days before the meeting, I thought that actually, this was not just about the French people, it was an issue affecting all EU citizens. We were all in the same boat. So I quickly translated the online invitation page in English and on the day of the meeting, on July 11th, we had people from Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain etc. It was the full European diaspora on show. It was packed busy and people after people were asking questions about their future and the impact on their families and friends, and through her replies, the immigration lawyer made us all aware for the first time of the hostile environment policies. A feeling of anxiety dominated the room, as well as feeling stronger for being together.

On that day, I realised Brexit had the unintended consequence of uniting EU citizens in the UK around a new European identity. I don’t think that people consciously identified themselves as EU citizens before. But then, we faced the same issues, having a similar feeling of being disenfranchised and of betrayal. That united us and the3million emerged at the right time, as a vehicle for those who felt that way.

From the end of July 2016 onwards, we drove this new sense of identity by using very specifically the term EU citizens publicly, which wasn’t used much beyond the official EU communications at the time. But by the end of 2016 it was widely used by the government and by NGOs and it was a bit of a narrative win, because perceptions differ when you are referred to as an EU citizen or as an EU migrant. A citizen is defined by their participation in society, by their responsibilities and duties, and less so by the sole act of moving from one place to another at one given time.

In these years you have worked with the British in Europe coalition, another group born in the aftermath of the referendum, which however closed down earlier this year because of lack of funds. How is the3million set up and who funds you?

The3million incorporated in November 2017 as a not-for-profit organisation. I sought funding from charitable foundations and we built a team of activists and professionals to follow the legislation affecting our rights and its implementation, and to build a strong public narrative in support. I became the CEO and we have eight employees in total. We have a steering committee and a board of directors with experts from different fields. My aim is to build a sustainable organisation which is open, diverse and inclusive, and that will continue to be there for EU citizens in the future. The point I am making is that our rights are protected under the EU UK Withdrawal Agreement for the rest of our life in the UK, so the3million will be needed in the next 10, 20, 30 years time. We will need protection because the legal framework keeps changing.

You mentioned a strong public narrative. People arrived as EU citizens, being part of a common area with common rules made by common institutions (the European Parliament and Council) that they elect. Outside this framework, they became EU migrants. How has this narrative evolved in these years?

There has been a convergence of issues because now we have an immigration status in the UK like other migrants and we face the same issues. One of them is the backlog in decision-making by the Home Office. Another is having a digital-only status that was trialled on us and is now extended to everyone. While in 2016 it was important to stress our EU citizenship identity, because we wanted to protect the rights we had under EU treaties, I think now it is important to integrate with other migrants. For the Home Office we are a cohort of 6 million migrants – the largest cohort of migrants in the country – with an immigration status in the UK.

Let’s recap what the3million has done since the beginning.

I studied public law at university in the 1990s and I understood from the start that the key issue was that our rights were derived from the EU treaties and would not continue to apply in the UK, so we needed to protect these rights by lobbying for a new legal framework. That framework is the withdrawal agreement. That’s the reference for most of our work. Some of the rights are protected, others less so and our purpose is to hold the UK government accountable with regard to the withdrawal agreement that it signed with the EU, making sure that people’s rights are respected, while also looking at the issue of accessing those rights, as well as access to justice if things go wrong.

After that first meeting in Bristol, we met again the following week. There were 12 of us, some still with the3million. We adopted a very pragmatic approach to the issue. We decided not to enter the Brexit debate and not to side with ‘remainers’ because of the risk of what would happen to our rights if they lost, but to have a distinct voice in society and focus exclusively on campaigning to protect our rights.

At the same time, we built the3million brand quickly on social media and made a lot of noise in the real world with a certain impact. When we met Michel Barnier [the chief EU Brexit negotiator], he famously said “citizens’ rights first”, which were one of the only three topics in the first chapter in the Brexit negotiations, with the UK debt to the EU and the Irish border. I don’t think this would have happened if we hadn’t had this strong voice that reached Brussels and Westminster.

In February 2017 we organised our first mass lobby and we completely paralysed the UK parliament for an afternoon. It was an incredible day for all involved, with people telling MPs about their life in the UK and asking guarantees over our legal status. At the same time we partnered with British in Europe, with whom we maintained an excellent working relationship over the years and this allowed us to fend off accusations such as ‘what about the rights of the Brits living in the EU?’ That partnership also meant privileged access to institutions in the UK and in Brussels because we could speak with one voice and work to find solutions that would work for all.

What are the most memorable times of these years?

For me personally, it was when we did our second mass lobby in Westminster in September 2017 and I organised a photo op with the letters ‘This is our home’, again in partnership with British in Europe. This was to show where we belong, our identity. I have multiple identities, but home is where the heart is, where we live and where we consider to be home. People came to the event and they could identify with this message. Despite the worries and the feeling of betrayal, we tried to convey a message of love. The full message actually was: ‘This is our home, share the love’. It was an incredible moment of emotions, and one which became synonymous with the cause, as the picture has been used thousands of times in press and media stories.

In the afternoon, we had an event in Trafalgar Square and there was this feeling that everything was possible. There was a sense of hope behind the anxiety around our status and what we were going through. It was that feeling of collective energy and it was not just the3million and British in Europe, there were our friends from the groups In Limbo, Migrants Rights Network, Migrants Voice, Unison and many more.

There were so many other memorable moments: when we convinced the UK parliament to protect our rights in case of no deal with the EU, when [former Prime Minister] Theresa May mentioned the3million as she announced that the settled status [the new legal status of EU citizens in the UK] would be free, all the meetings in Brussels and with Barnier.

A less positive memory is the first time I went to a meeting at the Home Office, which was when we realised we needed to be more than an emotional voice of disenfranchised citizens, but a reliable and constructive stakeholder if we wanted to shake the dogmas of the hostile environment. Feeling heard in politics is very difficult and especially after a referendum where we had no voice, but we did it and still are doing it now.

Nicolas Hatton, CEO of the3million

In practical terms the main outcome of the Brexit negotiations regarding EU citizens in the UK was the creation of a new legal status, the ‘settled status’. What is the situation now?

The situation is that we have a legal framework for our rights and that nearly 6 million people have gained a legal status since the applications were opened in August 2018.

Yet, this is a worrying time for people because there is a massive backlog on the processing of over 260,000 applications and over two million people with pre-settled status will need to make a fresh application to be able to stay in the country when their pre-settled status expires.

What we see now is that the Home Office is scrutinising the applications a lot more, especially when it comes to accepting the evidence people are producing to prove they have lived in the UK  continuously. Also, people who are in the scope of the withdrawal agreement might not know what their rights are when it comes to rights to work or rights to rent and may suffer discrimination for no fault of their own.

What remains a big issue is people having settled status but being unable to prove it because it is digital only. Because of the hostile environment, the enforcement of immigration controls in the UK is delegated to private actors like airlines, landlords and employers, meaning that people can be discriminated against based on nationality. Recently, many people have used social media to say that they were not able to come back home in the UK because airlines rejected their proof of ID, which is incredible. It shows how a digital status is quite precarious. When I travel, I always carry with me the settled status letter from the Home Office, so I have at least something to show if needed, although the letter specifically says that it is not proof of status. Being able to provide a card or a physical document could solve the problem.

An important area not addressed in the withdrawal agreement concerns voting rights. Scotland, Wales allow all residents to vote, while in England only EU citizens who were resident pre-Brexit or those from EU countries with a bilateral deal with the UK can vote in local elections. What are your views on this?

We are pleased that the Cabinet Office recognised that EU citizens established in the UK before Brexit can be seen as integral to society and can continue to vote and stand as candidates in local elections, without seeking reciprocity from EU member states. The problem is that this only works for people with an EU passport, not joining family members protected under the withdrawal agreement or EU citizens arriving post-Brexit. This is why we are running a campaign on residence-based voting rights, like in Wales and Scotland, so everyone is included, not just EU citizens. We believe that voting rights should be granted to every resident in the UK.

There has been quite a high number of EU citizens candidates in local elections this year and last year, and this is very welcome because integration comes by taking positions of leadership in the country. You can do that by becoming a politician, by taking roles in the running of parties, in the media and in positions of power in the economy and the social sector. If we look at the Commonwealth, it is no surprise to see second or third generation immigrants in government, parliament or on TV as news anchors. It has taken a while for that to happen, but with EU citizens it could be faster because we felt part of society before the referendum and we were frustrated because we couldn’t vote and this has fast-tracked people to integrate, to gain citizenship and to become leaders or role models in society.

Which rights have EU citizens in the UK lost?

First of all, there was an issue of access to our rights. The fact that we had to apply to have a legal status instead of being granted status automatically meant that thousands of people are still in the backlog and for two million people with pre-settled status [those who had lived in the UK for less than five years before Brexit] the legal status is conditioned upon a second application. So the automaticity of rights was lost and affected people’s ability to exercise these rights.

The second loss is related to digital status. Before Brexit we could apply for permanent residence. It was not necessary, but we could obtain a residence card. Now we have no documents and this is why we have an active campaign to get physical proof of our status.

The third loss is about family rights. Under EU rules we had family reunion rights, the possibility to bring family members to the UK with no requirements, so that families would not be separated. The relationship had to exist before 31 December 2020 for being covered by the withdrawal agreement. And it’s not just us, also British in Europe lost their right to bring their EU partners back to the UK automatically. This was allowed until 29 March 2022, while now they have to meet standard English rules, which are very harsh.

The other issue is about being able to access rights. The withdrawal agreement says that people should receive a certificate of application immediately when they apply for settled status but some people have to wait months. We raised this problem back in April 2021 and the Independent Monitoring Authority on citizens’ rights is now conducting an enquiry about it. It is a huge issue for people that are basically stuck in the backlog of decision-making and are feeling as anxious as we were back in 2016-2017. And it is possibly a much worse situation if the application is refused because now, without free movement, they will be illegal in the country. This affects a high proportion of non-EU family members of EU citizens and there is evidence that it concerns especially people with Muslim-sounding names or people of colour, which is in line with the Home Office policies to scrutinise applications of people that they believe they might try to fool the system, and it is plainly racist.

A key component of EU citizenship and free movement is the right to non-discrimination. EU countries cannot treat other EU citizens differently to their own citizens. Isn’t this the most important right that was lost by EU citizens in the UK? And isn’t this the core of Brexit? The possibility of discriminating against everyone who is not British?

As the results of the referendum landed in 2016, I felt, like many other people, that we had started to live in a world where we were not on an equal footing anymore. Project Brexit was a project based on discrimination. It was Britain for the British. I think some people decided to apply for citizenship at that point because they want this equal treatment, they want to be able to vote in general elections, they want to have a voice. But even then, they don’t feel as British as British people and Brexit did change how we are perceived in the country and how we perceive ourselves also.

Looking at the Platinum Jubilee, what really shocked me was that the country celebrated 70 years of British history as part of the history of the Queen and they highlighted a lot of lovely and great British values and events. They celebrated the Commonwealth for the diversity of the country but there was no mention of Europe, of joining the Union and of the contribution of a cohort of 6 million people living in the UK. It is very symptomatic of that public narrative, which excludes us completely from the debate as if we do not exist. We need to shout much louder to have a voice in Britain because officially we are not part of the history, which is mind boggling knowing how much Britain has contributed to the principles of the EU and how much EU citizens are contributing to the culture, the social life, the communities of Britain. I personally feel that needs to be rectified and bridges need to be built to restore the truth about our place and contribution in the country, because this is completely ignored.

What needs to happen to build these bridges and restore the truth?

I think with time EU citizens will become much more prominent in British society. Within a generation, we will be in positions of power in the media and in politics and the narrative will then change because people know what actually happened. But to get there, we need to promote our voices. I want EU citizens to get into leadership positions in political parties, to work in the civil service, to be in the media… then these stories will become familiar. It is no coincidence that the Commonwealth is promoted highly. It is not because of history, it is because many Commonwealth citizens are in positions of power.

For example, we have worked with the Foreign Press Association since 2017 and many European correspondents in the UK are also EU citizens whose status changed with Brexit. So the issues that we raised, the campaigns that we built, the fights that we led, it was their fights and their campaigns too, so they wrote about the issues we faced and questioned the government in a way that was very different from British journalists, who used much more the Brexit angle. It is no surprise that it was a German journalist, Stefanie Bolzen of Die Welt, who got the scoop when interviewing Brandon Lewis [former immigration minister, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] that EU citizens without a status could face deportation from the UK. She had to ask the question five times for him to answer. I do not think a British journalist would have done that because they would not feel so much affiliation with the issue. This is what I mean: if an EU citizen becomes a news anchor for the BBC, these news stories will resonate more widely.

The tabloids have enormous power in the UK and there is no equivalent in European countries. What has been your relationship with them?

We have had some positive stories in the tabloids but I can’t really say that we managed to get through their editorial lines and this is an issue if you think that The Sun has always supported the party of the person that became Prime Minister. Not having access to the tabloids makes everything more difficult. Their impact is also quite a unique factor for Britain in terms of leaving the EU, compared to other European countries. However, I really believe some stories published in the run up to the referendum would be much more difficult to publish now because there would be too many people inside the papers saying ‘I don’t agree with that’.

In fact, you never read about ‘American immigrants’ nor ‘Norwegian immigrants’ and neither ‘German immigrants’, but you read of ‘EU immigrants’.

Yes, correct, it is always about Eastern Europeans. That was orchestrated politically to use xenophobia for political gains and it is still true today. We all remember the rise in hate crimes in 2016. I know so many people who experienced hate back then. The organisation British Future runs regular surveys on the public views on immigration and during the Brexit referendum campaign, immigration as an issue was at the highest level. Now this is no longer the most important subject, but it could come back quite easily if orchestrated. I do not believe there has been a real shift in the narrative about some EU citizens.

That narrative around ‘EU immigrants’ however extends to the broader media, to politics and to a certain extent the academic sector too. Is this a form of institutionalised discrimination?

It is part of the rewriting of the history of the country highlighting historical ties with the Commonwealth and totally erasing the European history of Britain, which does not match the reality. But a lot of people now have integrated that narrative into what they believe is the history of Britain, a political rewriting of history which is a barrier to the integration of the 6 million EU citizens in this country. We have a responsibility as well to restore the truth. There are enough of us, we are almost 10 per cent of the population, to actually challenge that view.

The conclusion from what you say could be that while Brexit so far looks like questionable from an economic perspective, it is a success for the rewriting of the country’s history.

Yes, the Platinum Jubilee has shown that this narrative has become mainstream.

The British government is questioning the role of the European Court of Justice in the Northern Ireland arrangements. Could this become an issue regarding the chapter on EU citizens’ rights?

The European Court of Justice has recently ruled the UK’s requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance unlawful and the Independent Monitoring Authority has launched a court case in the event of loss of status when transitioning from pre-settled to settled status, so there is definitely a strong role for the Court to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK to make sure that the withdrawal agreement is implemented correctly and people do not suffer because their rights have been misinterpreted by the Home Office.

There are a myriad of problems. We publish reports for the Independent Monitoring Authority highlighting specific issues that are reported to us and the reports have become very long because there are so many individual issues that we find out because people contact us [form] to try and find a solution. This is important, because people’s lived experience directly informs our advocacy work. It is a challenging job because of the way the Home Office operates, their lack of transparency, their lack of consultation with us and other organisations in the migration sector. There are so many issues that could be prevented if they listened but it is not their way of working and ultimately, their interest does not lie with how EU citizens are experiencing the EU Settlement Scheme, but with the overall reputation of the government, hence their PR propaganda about success.

Speaking of strong public voices, is there any support for ending the hostile environment?

The3million partners with many migrant organisations on campaigns to end the hostile environment, but there are differences in approaches. We try to fragment it and to protect rights, while promoting the extension of these rights to all migrants. For example, wouldn’t it be better if settled status was offered to all migrants free of charge? Other migrants organisations may be more frontal and I think both strategies are important.

Do you think the withdrawal agreement has been fair?

I don’t really have a judgement on the withdrawal agreement. It is an international treaty and it provides the legal framework that we can operate under. There are gaps as we could not really obtain everything we wanted and there are issues affecting people now. But it has the merit of existing, so it can’t be breached or, if it is, the government would be liable. It is a unique framework because not all migrants have the benefits of an international treaty, so there is a lot of value in this framework and this will underpin our rights for the rest of our lives.

For me there is a lot of unfairness in the implementation of the agreement and in the difficulties of people not knowing their rights and therefore struggling to access them. There are 6 million people with settled status, and when considering that people are already suffering losses, because of the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance or in the future if they lose their pre-settled status, I can anticipate there will be a lot of litigation. I can’t predict the future, but based on the past I think we will see a lot of changes and apologies, but people will have to suffer first and it could be avoided if the Home Office consulted better and put the safeguards in place now.

This is also why we started a new programme called community lawyering, aiming at reaching communities to make sure they know their rights and have access to justice through lawyers engaged on these issues.

The rights of EU citizens in the UK are now determined by the withdrawal agreement, the trade and cooperation agreement, UK immigration law, EU legislation, national legislation in the country of origin, sometimes bilateral agreements. Do you follow all this?

Well, the post-Brexit trade agreement does not include a chapter on citizens’ rights for people who arrived before the exit. EU citizens who arrived after Brexit are not eligible for settled status and they have to go through the point-based visa system as their EU citizenship does not mean anything for the British state.

As for our EU rights, we maintain strong links in Brussels and with the EU delegation in London. We are part of the conversation on citizens’ rights as part of the EU. We are still EU citizens and when it comes to knowing your rights, we need to know our rights in the UK but also as EU citizens in the EU, even though there are other organisations best positioned for this. 

You also run a programme encouraging people to become UK citizens. Why? 

I am very passionate about the path to UK citizenship, although I haven’t gone through this process myself. I came to the UK in 1995 so I could have done it long ago, and now I am actually very torn because I would like to vote in general elections and be equal and, at the same time, I feel that the process to become a British citizen is unfair. It costs £1,330 for the application alone so it is a huge barrier especially if you think of the cost for an entire family. But there is also a cultural barrier with the ‘life in the UK’ test, which is irrelevant to being part of British society. There is also complexity in the system which is very unhelpful and can deter people. But it makes sense to integrate in British society for those who feel at home, that’s what we started saying in 2017. We may have mixed feelings about it, but British people have mixed feelings about their own country too. The point is that there should be no barrier to being British for those who wish to go on that path.

The other element of this discussion is that when I looked at the number of EU citizens who have applied to become British citizens over the last 20 years, it’s a tiny portion compared to those with settled status. When you look at the number of Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK in the same period, the proportion of people who have become British is much higher. I think this shows EU citizens are lagging behind, and I believe that people will become British within a generation, while children of EU citizens in the UK with settled status at the time of the birth are themselves British citizens automatically. I think it is our responsibility to fast track that trend.

In the next general elections, we could have half a million or a million EU citizens registered to vote, which were not in the previous election. That would create a huge change in the public narrative and in the policies as well. I’m not suggesting people would vote one side, as we know this is not true. But citizenship is a key political change from a diversity perspective. It is a game changer in the balance of power if a large group of EU citizens become British within a relatively short time frame.

What is the mood of the EU community in the UK now, 6 years from the referendum?

It is an interesting question, because I am not sure a ‘community of EU citizens’ is a valid term. When we built the Forum for EU citizens on Facebook, we quickly reached big numbers within the context of Brexit, but for the last two or three years it has been stable at around 45,000 members. When I look at other Facebook groups based on nationality, like for example the Bulgarian group created by Toni Petkova of the charity Settled, they also got very high numbers quickly, without any reference to EU citizenship. The fact is many EU citizens identify themselves first around their nationality and it is likely that people will see themselves more as Bulgarian, French, Italian or Polish than European as Brexit fades from the news.

The second comment is that people who follow the3million are aware of their rights and are very supportive. On our best day, we have a reach of 500,000 people, but what about the other 5.5 million? Many of them would also feel that their status is not fully secured and they might be in a vulnerable position. These are the people we need to reach out to if we want to succeed.

There is also a question about numbers, because people are mobile and they can move in and out, as long as they respect the terms of their settled status. Some people have applied for status and have gone back to the EU because of the COVID pandemic. It is very difficult to establish a full picture of the community of EU citizens because we lack the data.

Also in relation to free movement, why do you think EU citizenship over the years has not been recognised in the UK, even though Britons were EU citizens?

I don’t think EU citizenship is recognised anywhere in Europe. It is an unfinished project and Brexit has shown the failure of EU citizenship in that respect as people could be stripped of EU citizenship as their country left the Union, like the Brits, and there was little protection for us EU citizens in the UK, so a new treaty had to be negotiated to secure our rights.

I am quite critical of the lack of focus on EU citizenship at the EU level and Brexit has not revived that debate. It is just not a priority for member states and people will suffer from those deficiencies.

Back to the Brexit talks, we were one of the three priorities for the withdrawal agreement but when you read the memoirs of Michel Barnier on the negotiations, we do not really feature. This shows that without the fight we put up in 2016 and 2017, our situation would be a lot worse because that is not a priority for politicians. And I think this is true for politics in general: on the rights of people, unless you stand up and defend them, unless you represent them with your lived experience, they are easily forgotten. I take as a reference the suffragette movements and the Windrush scandal. It is the lived experiences of people which can change politics and we must continue to do that, otherwise our rights will be in danger.

Since we are in this unique situation as EU citizens who lost some EU rights, do you have a message for the EU?

They must continue to scrutinise the implementation of the withdrawal agreement so it is implemented fairly and any breaches or wrong interpretations have to be challenged. Citizens’ rights must be continuously prioritised because of the number of people they affect and because of the promises that were made during the negotiations.

The second message is for national politicians across the EU. If in the future, another member state decides to leave the Union, they need to be more prepared to protect the rights of people and the only way to do this is by reforming EU citizenship for all EU citizens living in the EU and abroad.

Reform in what sense?

Making these rights permanent in case of an exit and informing people of their rights so they know what they are. They need to complete the project on EU citizenship, so it is a true citizenship and not just a set or rights that can be unsecured.

On the other hand, what do you say to the British government to give some peace of mind to EU citizens?

The official line of the government is that EU citizens are ‘our family, colleagues and friends’, but the reality is very different. There is a misalignment between the public narrative and the policies and this is dishonest and creates tension. The government needs to match their official intention with policies and consult with the3million and other civic society organisations about the policies so people are part of the process, not just numbers in a Home Office database.

And politicians have to stop using migrants as a political bargaining chip for winning votes. In 2017, we said we did not want to be bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations. Today it feels as though in the political arena we are still bargaining chips. We are used positively when it suits them and negatively when it suits them and this has to stop. It’s not good for the cohesion of the country, for the cohesion of the four nations of the UK and for interpersonal relationships with our British friends, colleagues or neighbours. So the message ‘I’m not a bargaining chip’ is still relevant today.

Interview by Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo courtesy the3million

Europe Street News is an online magazine covering developments related to EU citizenship rights. We are fully independent and we are committed to providing factual, accurate and reliable information. As citizens’ rights are at the core of democracy, our website and newsletter are free to read. Please consider making a contribution so we can continue and expand our coverage. Thank you!

Contribute to Europe Street News!