Foreigners Are One of U.K.’s Best Assets, EU Commissioner Says

  • Pierre Moscovici says diversity contributes to British life
  • EU not budging on insistence on no informal Brexit talks

Pierre Moscovici. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Britain’s appeal to foreigners is one of its greatest strengths, European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said, as Theresa May’s government looks at ways to restrict the number who can live and work in the country.

“One of the main assets of the U.K. is precisely its attractiveness and diversity,” Moscovici, the French member of the 28-strong commission, said in an interview. “I was in London and was struck by this huge asset of people coming from all over Europe, from all over the world; can you imagine London and Great Britain without it?”

The rights of EU citizens in Britain have become a contentious issue since the U.K. voted in June to leave the European Union. While Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has been at pains to point out that Britain remains firmly “pro-business,” the EU says its insistence on tighter immigration controls means the country can’t remain a full member of the bloc’s single market.

As a member of the 28-nation EU, the U.K. has had to allow citizens from all other member states to set up home and work in Britain without any restrictions. As the U.K. prepares to leave the bloc, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has floated the idea of forcing companies to list foreign workers. The status of the approximately 2 million EU nationals already in Britain is likely to form part of negotiations between the U.K. and the bloc once formal talks start.

‘Rational Negotiation’

“I’d like to stick to a rational negotiation,” Moscovici said in the interview in Washington during the fall meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He reiterated the EU’s line that there would be no talks before May activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the two-year withdrawal process, something that the prime minister said she would do before the end of March.

A separate EU official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the Brexit preparations, said the insistence on no negotiations before Article 50 is to avoid giving the U.K. any leverage over the rest of the bloc.

However, that approach doesn’t rule out any contact between EU officials and the U.K., Moscovici said.

‘Positive Relationship’

“We are not ignoring each other,” Moscovici said. “I see Philip Hammond quite often and we have a very good and positive relationship -- discussing is one thing, pre-negotiating is another and first we need to know what the political stance is.”

Moscovici, France’s Socialist finance minister between 2012-2014, said more detail was needed on how the U.K. government sees its future relationship with the EU.

“Now we know the timetable and that’s good but also what is the stance? What is the strategy?” he said. “We are preparing seriously, we understand the British government has to prepare, but negotiation will start at the right moment.”

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