Theresa May’s claim EU citizens are ‘jumping the queue’ to work in UK was ‘damaging and insensitive’

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during the 2018 CBI Conference on November 19, 2018 in London, England. Leon Neal / Getty
  • Theresa May’s speech criticising EU citizens who “jump the queue” is branded “damaging and insensitive” by Lord Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security advisor and ambassador to France.
  • May used a speech on Monday to say that EU citizens would no longer be able to “jump the queue” after Brexit when free movement ends.
  • Lord Ricketts told Business Insider: “I think we should be celebrating the contribution that EU citizens have made in their hundreds of thousands in this country, not denigrating them by suggesting they were somehow abusing the system.”

LONDON – Theresa May’s claim that EU workers will no longer be able to “jump the queue” to live and work in the UK after Brexit was “damaging and insensitive” and risks harming Britain’s place in the world, the UK’s former national security advisor has told Business Insider.

Lord Peter Ricketts, who was National Security Adviser under David Cameron’s coalition government and the UK’s former ambassador to France, told Business Insider that May’s comments “shocked” him because they imply that EU citizens “somehow got here by some sort of trickery or misuse of the system.”

“By misrepresenting or implying that there was a queue which they jumped, it denigrates them and undervalues what EU citizens have contributed to this country,” he said.

“It feels like a deliberate implication that they were somehow cutting across or finding shortcuts in the system which is untrue,” he added.

“It is damaging and insensitive. I think we should be celebrating the contribution that EU citizens have made in their hundreds of thousands in this country, not denigrating them by suggesting they were somehow abusing the system.”

“Most of all, it betrays a failure to appreciate and welcome the contribution that EU citizens have made and by extension the contribution that UK citizens in other countries have made.”

Peter Ricketts
Lord Peter Ricketts Getty

May’s comments came in a speech to business leaders on Monday in which she vowed to end free movement for EU citizens after Brexit. Currently, EU citizens are able to work and live in the UK without applying for a visa, and UK citizens enjoy the same reciprocal arrangement in the rest of the EU.

The prime minister has been widely criticised for the speech. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the prime minister’s words were “offensive” and “disgraceful” while EU citizens in the UK warned they could fuel hate crimes against them.

“That the case for Brexit has been reduced to such a miserable and self-defeating bottom line is depressing in the extreme. Let’s lift our sights higher than this,” Sturgeon said.

“Actually, the more I think about it, the more offensive ‘jump the queue’ is as a description of a reciprocal right of free movement. Really disgraceful.”

The European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt has also criticised May.

He said: “EU citizens living, working, contributing to UK communities, didn’t ‘jump the queue’ and neither did UK nationals in Europe.”

“They were exercising rights which provided freedom and opportunities. We will fight to ensure these continue in the future, especially after any transition.”

A statement from the3million, a campaign group for EU citizens living in the UK, warned that May’s language risked a return to the “toxic” anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“We EU citizens in the UK will not tolerate a repeat of the toxic anti-immigrant language used in the 2016 referendum, with constant tabooed headlines on immigration and a 29% rise in hate incidents and hate crimes,” said the statement.

“In that campaign, we were vilified and British citizens living in Europe stereotyped or ignored.”

The group called MPs “to publicly oppose the return of these tactics and promote an honest debate at every opportunity.

A Downing Street spokesman said ahead of May’s speech on Monday that EU citizens had made a “huge contribution” to the UK.

The spokesman said it was not “fair” to suggest that the prime minister planned to accuse EU citizens in the UK of “jumping the queue” when lines from her planned speech were released to journalists.

May later told the CBI conference: “It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi.”

“Instead of a system based on where a person is from, we will have one that is built around the talents and skills a person has to offer.”