In the sixteenth century, English tradesmen doing business in the Ottoman Empire adopted a pragmatic approach to life as immigrants. Some were even known to convert to Islam for the duration of their sojourn in Constantinople, reverting back to Christian ways as and when they returned to England.
When in Rome do as the Romans do – a much-neglected motto these days – is good advice to immigrants, migrants, emigres and refugees. It does not mean losing one’s identity but it does mean adapting and showing respect for the host country. People everywhere have a natural xenophobia that needs to be allayed and the best way of doing this is by making yourself less of a xenos – Greek for stranger and, interestingly, for guest too.
As B-Day approaches on March 29, 2019 Europeans will have to learn to be immigrants and my advice is that the Turkish Cypriot community in London is the community to study how to be good immigrants. For example, without abandoning their mild Muslim identity Turkish Cypriots living and working in England participate in the festive spirit of Christmas in the same pragmatic spirit that English tradesmen used to participate in Muslim festivals in Ottoman Turkey.
Although the birth of Jesus in a manger surrounded by animals and shepherds and visited by three oriental royals on camels guided by a comet bringing frankincense and myrrh is a beautiful story it is not just a story of motherhood and apple pie. Symbolically it is a story of the birth of God’s Son on Earth that lies at the heart of Christian teaching that alas does not sit well with Islam or Judaism. But Turkish Cypriots skate over the symbolism preferring to enjoy the spirit of Christmas like most British people do including imbibing the odd glass or two.
So as Britain goes into Christmas mode and as the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal is put on hold it would be as well for Europeans and Britons to stand back and think about how to be good immigrants in each other’s territory post Brexit. After all the civilised values that bind people will survive the shenanigans of mediocre apparatchiks like President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk who are playing games with the lives of millions of peoples over legal technicalities in Northern Ireland. Ultimately they will accept that Britain has to retain the sovereign power to leave the single market and the customs union without EU agreement if this is withheld unreasonably.
To reassure people, however, it is important for everyone to know that under general principles of law changes in the law do not generally speaking operate retrospectively. So if there is no withdrawal deal containing transitional arrangements, individual states will introduce a transitional regime of their own to ensure acquired rights are protected.
The last time a large number of foreign nationals in Britain had their immigration status determined as a group was in 1973 when all those settled in the UK were deemed to have permission to stay permanently by operation of law. In other words, they were all given indefinite leave to remain by statute.
Britain was disengaging from Empire and the Commonwealth and joining the European Economic Community and it was necessary to determine the status of a large number of Commonwealth citizens who had settled in the UK at a time when Commonwealth citizens were not subject to immigration control.
Prior to 1973, all Commonwealth citizens were British Subjects and as such had the right to live, work and settle in the UK under common law – rather like EU citizens do nowadays under EU law. This was gradually restricted as immigration became a political hot potato in the 1960s but not before a large number of Commonwealth immigrants had settled in the UK. They could not all be identified individually when the law was consolidated and reformed in 1973 so Commonwealth citizens were permitted to settle without actually getting individual notification.
They were undocumented immigrants but this did not prevent them from acquiring settled status once they sought to regularise their stay and proved they were ordinarily resident with no time restrictions of their right to remain.
It has been said that Commonwealth immigration took place behind the back of the British people but that is not entirely true. No government passed laws that made Commonwealth immigration easy – as successive governments did with EU migration. It was just the natural consequence of Empire and the grant of British subject status to Commonwealth citizens that enabled them to settle in the UK. This was confirmed in 1967 in a landmark ruling of the highest court in the land that held that at common law British subjects were free to live in England unless statute law said they couldn’t.
EU citizens have the right to move to the UK and remain without being subject to immigration control as well as the right to access services on proof of identity. These rights will eventually go after March 29, 2019 but not automatically. Those with permanent residence after five years in any country of the EU or the UK, for example, will not be deprived of the free-standing status they already acquired as individuals.
It is very important for people to know that rights, particularly of permanent residence, acquired by persons owing to their own particular circumstances will not be lost when Britain leaves the EU. Thus if a British citizen obtained permanent residence in another member state because he worked or lived or married there he would not lose his right just because Britain ceases to be a member of the EU. It is only rights that derive exclusively from the fact of UK membership of the EU that would be affected.
So on March 29, 2019, Britain will leave the EU and it will be astonishing if EU citizens settled in Britain are not treated the same way as Commonwealth citizens were in 1973. So deal or no deal EU citizens settled in the UK will be deemed to have indefinite leave to remain and I have no doubt that Britons living in other EU states who acquired permanent residence rights will retain their residence as well.
As a former Chief Justice of England told me many years ago across the well of the court in an immigration case in which I was surmising the possibility of unfair treatment of my client by the UK immigration authorities: ‘but Mr Riza we are a civilised country with civilised laws.’ EU states with sizeable British residents are civilised countries with civilised laws too. They are members of the Council of Europe and subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights and other conventions that protect immigrants and although Britain is leaving the EU she will remain a member of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights will continue to protect the rights and fundamental freedoms EU nationals in the UK and Britons in the EU.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel and a part time judge in the UK