Nicola Sturgeon has called on Prime Minister Theresa May to “do the humane thing” and give EU nationals living in the UK a guarantee they will be able to stay in the country after Brexit.
At a gathering of EU citizens living in Scotland, the First Minister said it was “disgraceful” that the UK government was withholding any assurances until the rights of British citizens on the continent were secured in Brexit negotiations.
Ms Sturgeon told more than 300 people invited by the Scottish Government: “You’re not bargaining chips, you are human beings with families, jobs, friends and lives here. I believe you have a right to certainty and peace of mind.”
She said it “beggars belief” that the UK government’s own position on what kind of Brexit deal it will seek remains unclear, seven weeks after the EU referendum.
The First Minister gathered her full cabinet in Edinburgh to hear concerns from EU nationals, with the human impact of Brexit underlined by an Italian mother who said her 13-year-old son was called a “scrounger” and told to “go away” following the referendum vote.
Caroline Magoha said: “We have to live with our bags half-packed, our feet halfway out of the door. It is inhumane. It is against the basic human rights of children. Brexit is ruining the future of Scottish children.”
It really breaks my heart that as First Minster, as the elected leader of this country, I am not able to sit here and give you the guarantees and the certainty that you want. This is the one that strikes at the heart of humanity. People living here and trying to get on with their lives here should not suddenly have this question mark over their future, and the UK Government could at the stroke of a pen, today if it chose to, put an end to this uncertainty.Nicola Sturgeon
Ms Sturgeon replied: “It really breaks my heart that as First Minster, as the elected leader of this country, I am not able to sit here and give you the guarantees and the certainty that you want.
“People living here and trying to get on with their lives here should not suddenly have this question mark over their future,” she said, calling on the UK government to “end this uncertainty, end it now, do the humane thing.”
Her appeal won applause, but Ms Sturgeon faced angry questioning from one man who accused the SNP of “sneering at British people” and “misrepresenting” pro-EU votes in the referendum “to further yet more separatism”.
Patrick Harkness, from Northern Ireland, said: “Your backbenchers openly talk about how much people may or may not hate the English and you do not admonish them.
“When are you going to hold an event such as this for UK citizens, to reassure us that your Nationalists will no longer speak division and hatred against us, so that we can feel welcome in our homes well?”
SNP MSP John Mason faced criticism last year for claiming on Twitter “most people hate the English”. Ms Sturgeon replied that she would “admonish anybody who is anti-anybody on the basis of their nationality, whatever that nationality would be”.
The First Minister denied she was using the Brexit vote as a pretext for independence, saying: “I could have said on the morning after the referendum, ‘Scotland voted to stay in, the rest of the UK has voted to come out, we’re having a second independence referendum’.”
However, in admitting that she could not give EU nationals the assurances they seek, Ms Sturgeon suggested the Scottish Government should get further powers and reiterated the possibility of a second independence referendum.
Further detail of the Scottish Government’s negotiating position as it seeks to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU will be revealed next week, Ms Sturgeon said.
The meeting also heard calls from Dundee Polish association president Wlodzimierz Szepielow for EU citizens in Scotland to be issued residency cards as a gesture of reassurance.
Responding to the First Minister’s comments, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said Mrs May wanted to protect the status of EU nationals living in the UK, but added it was “important that we secure the position of UK nationals who are in other parts of the EU”.
He said: “I recognise the concerns around this issue and we do want to bring it to an early conclusion to be able to give people certainty.”