U.K. Prepares to Play Hardball Over EU Citizens Rightsby and
May’s officials draw up two-page list of rights to negotiate
Clash could become fresh hurdle, slowing progress of talks
The U.K. is preparing to play hardball in negotiations over the rights of millions of European Union citizens living in the country, as the issue looks likely to become a major hurdle for the Brexit talks.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s team is squaring up to fight demands from Brussels that the 3.2 million EU nationals living in Britain should enjoy exactly the same privileges as now even after the country leaves the bloc.
The most controversial argument from within the EU is that the European Court of Justice continues to provide the final guarantee of entitlements. May has already promised Brexit will mark the end of the ECJ holding sway in the U.K.
“If they insist that EU citizens living in the U.K. are protected by EU law under the ECJ, that is an impossible demand,” said former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith. “How can EU citizens’ rights be guaranteed under EU law, when EU law won’t run in the U.K.? No other independent and sovereign country in the world would agree to a thing like that.”
While both sides say they want an early agreement to guarantee the status of EU nationals after Brexit, there are indications that it may be more complicated than first imagined after EU officials toughened their demands in recent weeks.
The problem for May is that any delay in resolving rights would prompt the EU to withhold the discussion she wants over a free-trade deal.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier last week said that the 27 remaining EU countries require “iron-clad guarantees” of citizens’ rights before the negotiations on Britain leaving the bloc can move to a future trade accord. “Otherwise, there can be no trust when it comes to constructing a new relationship with the U.K.,” he said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned last month there will be 25 separate questions to resolve as part of this supposedly simple issue on reciprocal rights for residents. Just over a million Britons living on the continent are also affected.
Speaking privately, one British official raised concern that Juncker’s team could also try to complicate the process by using the talks as an opportunity to standardize a package of rights for EU citizens across the 27 remaining countries in the bloc.
The U.K. has drafted a two-page hit list of rights currently enjoyed by EU nationals in Britain -- covering their access to healthcare, social security, the rights of spouses, and travel rules, according to officials familiar with the matter. Each of these issues will need to be separately negotiated, they said.
For anyone moving to the U.K. before Brexit day, the EU wants to ensure full pension and social security rights and comparable tax advantages for as long as they live. They also should have the ability to gain permanent residency after five years of continuous stay even if they lack the correct documents.
The EU also wants the deal to include the spouses and children of the citizens, too, even if they join them in the U.K. after the withdrawal date. As Home Secretary until last year, May resisted granting rights to non-EU spouses.
Steve Baker, who leads a pro-Brexit group of Conservatives, said he believed all EU countries were clear that they wanted to reach an agreement on reciprocal rights for EU citizens, but the U.K. government says the ECJ shouldn’t have a role.
“The prime minister has given a very clear statement that we will end the jurisdiction of the ECJ,” he said. “It would be a strange thing if a fraction of the people living in the U.K. had access to the ECJ and not all of them,” he said.
“We need to deliver reciprocal rights for people living in the U.K. and people living in the EU and to do it as soon as possible,” Baker said. “As far as I can tell, there’s complete agreement that it should be done early.”