23 Juin 2017
Theresa May made a “fair and serious offer” to European Union leaders over the contentious issue of the future rights of EU citizens, offering those who arrive lawfully before Brexit the chance to build up the same rights to work, healthcare and benefits as UK citizens.
Speaking at the end of a dinner at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels, after formal Brexit talks kicked off on Monday, May set out the UK’s opening offer on the rights of EU citizens – an issue both sides have said they would like to be resolved early in the talks.
The prime minister told them the UK was willing to agree to a “cutoff point” between 29 March this year, when May formally triggered article 50, and the later date of March 2019 preferred by the European commission.
EU citizens already in the UK – and those who arrive lawfully during during a subsequent “grace period”, expected to be up to two years – will be given the opportunity to build up five years’ worth of residence. The grace period of two years could start at any point up to the date of Brexit and would allow EU citizens time to regularise their status.
That will entitle them to a special category of “settled status”, conferring the same rights to work, pensions, NHS care and other public services as British citizens, which they will maintain for life.
The offer, which is contingent on a reciprocal pledge about the rights of the 1.5 million British citizens currently living elsewhere in the EU, falls short of the EU’s demand for its citizens living in the UK to maintain all EU rights in perpetuity. But the prime minister told her fellow leaders that she did not want to see anyone already in the UK forced to leave, or families split up.
“The UK’s position represents a fair and serious offer, and one aimed at giving as much certainty as possible to citizens who have settled in the UK, building careers and lives and contributing so much to our society,” May said.
But the UK is not prepared to concede to the EU’s demand to allow the European court of justice to be the guarantor of those rights. A government source said: “The commitment we will make will be enshrined in UK law, and enforceable through our highly respected courts.”
May’s proposal came in response to the EU’s own offer on the future rights of UK citizens living in other EU countries.
According to EU sources May’s presentation was accepted as a reasonable opening offer by leaders but there was no discussion. The EU negotiating team will now open a technical review of the offer, it is understood.
German chancellor Angela Merkel called May’s offer a good start” but said many other issues related to Britain’s departure from the bloc still need to be resolved.
“Theresa May made clear to us today that EU citizens that have been in Britain for five years will retain their full rights. That is a good start,” Merkel told reporters. “But there are still many many other questions linked to the exit, including on finances and the relationship with Ireland. So we have a lot to do until (the next EU summit in) October.”
The government’s insistence that it would not guarantee the rights of EU citizens unilaterally has created uncertainty about the future of those already living in the UK in the year since the referendum result, and sparked a vociferous campaign from individuals and groups, including the grassroots campaign The 3 Million.
After the grace period has elapsed, newly arriving EU citizens will be subject to whatever immigration system replaces freedom of movement after Brexit.
Campaigners for EU citizens living in the UK branded the prime minister’s offer as “disgraceful”. Nicolas Hatton, the founder of The 3 Million, said: “They have gone for the worst scenario possible. This is just negotiation tactics, and it is disgusting. They do not want to engage with EU citizens and they think it’s just this big game.”
The 3 Million, along with a coalition of 13 campaign groups lobbying for the rights of 1.2 million Britons living in Europe, have met the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit ministers across Europe and said the EU officials have at least “listened to them” and put in virtually everything they asked for in the EU proposal.
He said they would raise their objections at a scheduled meeting with officials at the Department for Exiting the EU tomorrow. The group has a further meeting with ministers on Monday, but Hatton disclosed that Brexit secretary David Davies “refused to meet us, which we also find insulting”.
Earlier, Jane Golding, a British lawyer living in Berlin, said it was legally “untenable” for Britain not to preserve the rights of any EU citizens who were exercising their freedom of rights by living and working in Britain.
She said the EU had pledged to give the British living on the continent and called on the prime minister to reciprocate.
Golding said campaigners in Germany had met officials from the German foreign ministry, including their Brexit lead, as well as officials from four other German ministries. “The EU have made a huge effort and have listened to us,” she said. But Theresa May’s outline, she claimed, raised more questions than it answered. “Whether the status quo and the full bundle of rights that EU citizens in the UK currently have will be safeguarded is not clear from this statement.”
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU, said: “Labour has been clear that people should not be bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister’s offer is too little too late and falls far short of the full and unilateral guarantee Labour would make.