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'Empathy fatigue' for EU nationals? You won't find that here

‘Empathy fatigue’ sounds like the kind of malaise that sits alongside Gauloises and Garbo, a dated phrase from another time. Not something you would associate with a vibrant, modern society, one more globally interconnected every day.

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First published in The National, 27 April 2017

But Brexit stirred the pot and brought all kinds of muck to the surface, including the notion that people are problems. People who have built their lives in this country – raised their children here, ran businesses, enriched our communities – are now being overlooked and made to feel unwelcome. 

As an MEP for Scotland, I’ve received emails from EU nationals that would break your heart, and I still don’t know what’s worse; the terrified folk who have nothing to go ‘home’ to, or the ones who are resigned to being ‘kicked out’. 

This is not a country I recognise.

In our 2014 independence referendum, we made sure that EU nationals could vote. Our definition of Scottish is “Do you live in Scotland? Aye? Great, you’re in.” Compare this to the shameful decision by the UK Government to block EU citizens from voting, and you’ve got an instant example of the difference between the two governments: Open, welcoming and progressive, or narrow-minded and insular.

I accepted the result of the IndyRef, albeit with a heavy heart, but I cannot accept the EU referendum result as being the best option for Scotland. For a start, it’s not how Scotland voted! Every single constituency in Scotland voted to Remain, but we’re being dragged out anyway by a government that appears to want to out-do itself every day in terms of petty jingoism and self-destructive nonsense. To turn around to folk and say “well, you can live here and pay taxes here, but this decision doesn’t really concern you, yeah?” is a democratic abomination, but it’s exactly what we saw in the EU referendum.

One of the most emotionally-wracking experiences of the past few months is hearing from EU nationals who are desperately worried about what will happen to them. ‘A’ has lived here since 1972. As a grandmother, she relies on her state pension, requires a frame to stand up, and simply doesn’t have the financial means to apply for a PR card, let alone UK nationality. 

Another, ‘B’, is a recent widow. Her husband died last year, leaving her to raise their young son alone. B has lived here for over a decade and, in addition to navigating widowhood, now has to worry that permanent residency may not apply after the UK leaves the EU.

Why? Because the UK Government sees these people as bargaining chips in the ongoing Brexit high-stakes gamble. Nobody doubts that governments have to make difficult decisions, but by not giving these people reassurance that their home remains their home, the UK Government is plunging thousands of people and their families into uncertainty.

The Home Office has seen its full-time staff reduced by 10% since 2010, and at the current rate it will take 50 years to process the 3.2 million EU nationals currently in the UK. These people have made Scotland their home, and their legal rights are not being respected. Can you imagine living here for literally years, enriching the country both socially and economically, and then suddenly being forced to jump through hoops in a convoluted process to prove you have right to permanent residence, all the while with a Sword of Deportation hanging over your head? 

That doesn’t only apply to EU nationals living here, by the way. Scots abroad are considering adopting the citizenship of another country, flocking to lawyers who have no clearer idea than the rest of us.


The day after the EU referendum, while the Leave figureheads were conspicuous by their stunned absence, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon strode out to meet the media at Bute House and addressed EU citizens directly. “You remain welcome here, Scotland is your home, and your contribution is valued.”

Across the country, Scots are reaching out to their European neighbours, making sure they know that Scotland voted to Remain. One constituent in particular springs to mind, Barry from Bathgate, who regular readers may remember from the National’s letter pages. Barry spent the weeks after the referendum posting cards through his neighbours’ letterboxes, and his kind words have stuck with me over the last few months. “I want to let you know you are valued. No matter what the EU Ref result, Scotland wants you here, I want you here, my family wants you here, our First Minister wants you here, and we will continue the fight to make sure every family, every person who has chosen to make Scotland their home remains here.”

‘Take Back Control’ will surely be remembered as one of the most catchy yet inaccurate campaign phrases of all time, as the elite political class continues to use ordinary people as pawns. In the game of political chess, the UK Government is playing Kerplunk - wildly yanking at straws and waiting for all the balls to drop.