Tory Candidates Clash Over Britain’s EU Workers After Brexit

  • Theresa May links rights for Britons in Europe to future deal
  • Leadsom, Crabb criticize using people as bargaining chips

Lawmakers jockeying to replace Prime Minister David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party have split over the status of European Union citizens after Britain leaves the bloc.

Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom on Monday pledged to preserve the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, putting her at odds with Home Secretary Theresa May, the front-runner, who a day earlier linked the fate of EU workers in Britain with that of British people in Europe.

“I commit today to guaranteeing the rights of our EU friends who have already come here to live and work,” Leadsom said in the formal launch of her program for leadership. Unlike May, she campaigned to leave the EU. “We must give them certainty. There is no way they will be bargaining chips in our negotiations.”

Freedom of movement of workers and immigration into the U.K. were key issues during the referendum campaign and there have been reports of racism against EU nationals, including an attack on a Polish community center in west London, since the vote to leave the bloc on June 23. It is one of a raft of issues that will have to be clarified as Cameron’s successor navigates a path out of the union. 

Lawmakers discussed the status of immigrant workers in Parliament on Monday afternoon, with the pro-Brexit Labour lawmaker Gisela Stuart urging the government to make a “clear statement” supporting the rights of 3 million EU workers to stay in Britain.

“It is the duty of a government to allow people to live and arrange their lives and be able to make predictions,” Stuart said.

No ‘Unwise’ Guarantees

While the negotiations will “undoubtedly reflect the immense contribution” to British society made by EU immigrants, it would be “unwise” to fully guarantee their right to stay “without a parallel assurance from European governments regarding British nationals living in their countries,” Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said.

That position tallies with the one outlined on Sunday by May, his boss.

“As part of the negotiation we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the U.K. from the EU,” May told ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” show. “I want to ensure that we’re able to not just guarantee a position for those people but guarantee the position for British citizens who are over in other member states, in other countries in Europe, and living there.”

Those comments have prompted other candidates to offer guarantees of support to Europeans already in the U.K. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, a supporter of Leadsom’s fellow “Leaver” Michael Gove, tweeted that he would ensure those already in the U.K. can stay after a so-called Brexit. Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb was more direct in his criticism of May.

“Appalling that Theresa May is planning to use EU citizens as negotiating pawns,” Crabb’s leadership campaign tweeted on Monday.

Cameron’s office reiterated the premier’s reassurance that there won’t be any immediate changes to the circumstances of EU citizens in the U.K. and said it would be an issue for his successor.

“Clearly we’re going to enter a process of negotiation with our EU partners about leaving the European Union and there are a whole range of complex issues, including this one, that will need to be worked out,” Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London.

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