Editorial Board

How to Clear the First Brexit Hurdle

Britain and the EU don’t need to fall out over treatment of each other’s citizens.

Britain and Europe: speaking the same language?

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The first task for the Brexit negotiators is to agree on the rights of European Union citizens in Britain, and of U.K. citizens in the EU. In a rational world, this would be straightforward. In the real world, it will be a problem if one side or the other chooses to make it one.

Roughly 3.2 million EU citizens live in Britain, and 1.2 million U.K. citizens live in Europe. Brexit casts doubt on their residency status and future rights, including access to health care and other services. The fairest and least disruptive solution is reciprocity: EU citizens in the U.K. and U.K. citizens in the EU should have the same rights.

Granted, getting to such a deal is a bit more complicated than you’d think. The EU wants its citizens living in the U.K. to have the rights they would enjoy elsewhere in the EU -- but some of those rights are more extensive than the rights of British citizens in their own country. In particular, a U.K. citizen cannot bring a non-EU spouse to live in Britain without meeting a minimum-income test of £18,600 ($23,765) a year. After Brexit, that would diminish the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.

A fair agreement would either require Britain to dispense with the income test for the spouses of EU citizens, or the EU to narrow the rights of U.K. citizens living in Europe. Either outcome ought to be acceptable. It would be a scandalous failure of leadership on both sides if disagreements as trivial as this were to block further progress in the talks.

A more fundamental worry has centered on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Throughout, the British government has emphasized the need to recover sovereignty from EU institutions, and especially from the ECJ; the EU has seemed equally determined to preserve the full sway of the court in matters relating to its citizens.

This may be changing. Bloomberg reported this week that the EU could be willing to let a new arbitration body protect the future rights of EU citizens in Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May and David Davis, the minister in charge of the Brexit talks, have previously suggested a similar compromise.

Good: The benefits of flexibility and open-mindedness on such issues would be enormous. EU citizens keep Britain’s National Health Service running and are conspicuously essential in many other parts of the economy; Europe’s businesses rely on British professionals, and British expats (notably in Spain) fuel demand and pay taxes.

Whatever happens, Brexit will be a severe blow, especially to Britain -- but there’s no need to make a bad situation worse. Failing to reach agreement at the outset, and on an issue where the mutual interests are so plain, would be absurd.

    --Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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