Nicola Sturgeon told an audience of EU nationals “you are human beings, not bargaining chips”, and described herself as heartbroken after hearing an Italian mother describe the painful uncertainties faced by her family since the Brexit vote.
Condemning the UK government’s refusal to guarantee the status of EU citizens living in the UK as “disgraceful”, Sturgeon told the public meeting at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange on Wednesday morning: “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.”
About 450 people had signed up to attend the event, organised by the Scottish government to allow concerned EU nationals to question the first minister on the impact of the leave vote.
Italian national Caroline Magohao described through tears the feeling of “having to live with our bags half packed”. She said her teenage son, who had been called a “scrounger” by classmates during the referendum campaign, now worried about whether he would be able to stay in the country long enough to complete secondary school.
Sturgeon responded: “It breaks my heart to hear you describe the impact on your son, and he is one of thousands of young people not just across Scotland but the UK who are feeling that way.
“And it really breaks my heart that I am not able to sit here and give you the guarantee that you want.”
Sturgeon said it was “not good enough” for the prime minister, Theresa May, to say that “she hopes things will be OK”, adding: “This strikes at the heart of humanity. People are living here and trying to get on with their lives … the UK government could today, at the stroke of a pen, put an end to this uncertainty.”
She told the audience, which was expected to contain citizens of at least 24 EU member states, that she hoped the session would send a very clear message to the UK government to “do the humane thing and end this uncertainty”.
Questioned by Polish, Spanish and Irish citizens, among others, on a variety of subjects from tuition fees to the process of triggering article 50, Sturgeon explained to the audience that the Scottish government was constrained “until we have greater clarity on what the UK government means by Brexit”.
She said it “beggars belief” that, seven weeks after the vote, there were still no answers to that question.
Asked about Scottish involvement in Brexit negotiations, the first minister said her government was still in discussion about the form of interaction at ministerial level between the UK and Scottish administrations, but insisted: “What I’m not prepared to be is a rubber stamp for Brexit.”
She added that the UK government had to recognise the principle of legislative consent in this scenario, referring to the proposal from the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, in July that each of the devolved parliaments should be given the right to vote on the terms of Brexit.
On Tuesday, Sturgeon dismissed speculation that a second successful referendum for Scottish independence, alongside Brexit, could create a hard border with England.
That possibility had been raised by former SNP minister Alex Neil, who warned in an essay published last week that it would be “very difficult to achieve” independence for Scotland without establishing a hard border between the two countries.
Speaking at an event in Hawick, Sturgeon said: “I don’t want to see a hard border between Scotland and England, any more than people in Ireland want to see a hard border between the north and south. We’ve heard the prime minister say she is not prepared to have a hard border with Ireland.
“If it can be avoided there, then regardless of what might or might not happen with Scotland’s future, there’s absolutely no reason for anybody to be suggesting that that is inevitable here either.”
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