Wake Up, U.K.! You’ll Need Those EU Workers After Brexit.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s been an unsettling couple of years for an estimated over 3.5 million European Union nationals who live and work in the U.K. They’ve been victims of attacks, pawns in the Brexit negotiations and, more recently, an afterthought as an army of civil servants and consultants map out contingency plans for various Brexit scenarios.

None of that augurs well for the U.K.’s aspiration to remain an open, global trading power. A country that won’t welcome the citizens of its closest friends, allies and trading partners will make other countries wary. Whether or not the EU and U.K. conclude the terms of Britain’s exit in the coming weeks, more needs to be done to ensure that residency issues don’t undermine U.K.-European relations.

Violence against EU nationals is a relative rarity, but it did spike in 2016 following the Brexit vote in June; incidents such as a student being stabbed in the neck for speaking Polish underscored the way Europeans had been demonized during the referendum campaign. There have been similar attacks since, and the police say they expect a spike in hate crimes against EU citizens in March when Britain officially leaves.

The government condemns violence, of course, but it has done too little to push back against the canard that EU workers are taking U.K. jobs or represent some other kind of threat. This week brought another reminder of how anti-Europe sentiment threatens to undermine the post-Brexit U.K. economy.

In testimony before a parliamentary select committee on Tuesday, immigration minister Caroline Nokes said that businesses will have to conduct checks to ensure that the EU nationals they employ are entitled to work in the U.K. after Brexit. Only she couldn’t say how they’ll be able to do that, acknowledging only that “it will be incredibly difficult.”

That would pose a big problem for both employers and the European nationals on their payrolls. After Brexit, EU citizens will have to prove their identity, show that they live in the U.K. and have had no serious criminal convictions. They will have until March 2021 to apply for what’s called settled status, and the government promised to make the process easy. But it’s still being tested and hasn’t been fully introduced; so far only 650 of an estimated 3.5 million employed foreigners have applied. The system only works on Android devices since an agreement hasn’t been reached with Apple.

Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, sounded exasperated. “Either you’re going to have a system that in practice is unworkable because employers can’t implement it, or you’re going to have to accept that people who are arriving after March 2019 will just be covered by exactly the same rules as people who are already here,” she said.

Presumably, Nokes rushed back to her office to do some further homework. A grassroots organization representing EU citizens in the U.K., The3Million, reported that the Home Office issued a clarification Wednesday night, backtracking on Nokes’s statement. “Employers will not be expected to differentiate between resident EU citizens and those arriving after exit,” it said. There is no word on when legislation will be put in place to provide a greater level of certainty.

It couldn’t come too soon; even if there is a divorce agreement, Brexit is still five months away and any lack of clarity facing employers will affect hiring and retention plans. The3Million group  have posed more than 150 other questions affecting this population that require answers, too. Neglecting EU nationals, or treating their status as an afterthought, risks opening up a self-inflicted wound.

Apart from continued questions about the treatment of EU nationals in the U.K., the government’s determination to embrace a policy involving restrictions on low-skilled workers that treats EU workers no better than other nationalities is also misguided. It fails to recognize the historical ties or the current economic reality of the relationship.

The average European migrant tends to arrive at a young, working age and has a higher level of education than the average U.K. native. In at least 18 industries, Europeans represent more than 20 percent of the workforce. They are indispensable to hospitality and catering businesses, and are also a major presence in the National Health Service and in technology, education and finance. A survey by Oxford Economics found that European workers bring more revenue to the treasury than British-born residents and, over their lifetimes, pay 78,000 pounds ($99,582) more in taxes than they receive in services and benefits. Like many statistics, these are easily ignored. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May should be extolling the virtues of these workers and the enriching effect of their food, culture and industriousness.

With or without a Brexit deal, uncertainty is going to be a fact of life long after March 29. There will, for example, be a long period in which the details of the future trading relationship are negotiated, even if a divorce deal is concluded shortly. And after Brexit day, companies all over the U.K. will still employ a great number of EU nationals; their high- and low-skilled services will still be needed. May told business leaders Wednesday night that Britain’s future success was in their hands. Making clear what government expects and making compliance reasonable is the very least it can do. 

But really, its approach should be more ambitious. The first thing May should do when a Brexit deal is reached is to roll out a welcome carpet for the 3.5 million. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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