UK offer on rights of EU citizens in UK grossly inadequate

Retrospective removal of rights already acquired must not be allowed, say Brexit Steering Group members

While we in the European Parliament Brexit steering group accept the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was a democratic choice, we were never convinced Brexit would be a positive development economically, certainly not for the standing of Europe and the UK in the world, and most importantly not for citizens. The UK proposal on citizens’ rights only confirms this belief. The proposal falls short of its own ambitions to “put citizens first”. If implemented, it would cast a dark cloud of vagueness and uncertainty over the lives of millions of Europeans.

Comparing the UK’s proposal with that of the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, the differences are striking. In the EU proposal, the British people and Europeans keep the same rights and the same level of protection they currently enjoy under European law. All rights acquired before the date of withdrawal will be directly enforceable, with life-long protection, full reciprocity and equal treatment. A position as simple and clear as it is fair. That is what a majority of the British people want, when they indicate they seek to keep their EU citizenship.

Damp squib

The UK response to our proposal came three weeks later. It was a damp squib. The British government proposes that – the day after Brexit – Europeans obtain the status of “third country nationals”. These nationals would get fewer rights in the UK than British citizens are offered throughout the EU. Europeans would not only lose their right to vote in local elections, their future family members would also be subject to minimum income requirements, and it is unclear what the status of “post-Brexit” babies will be. The British proposal carries a real risk of creating a second class of citizenship. It is even in contradiction with the Vote Leave manifesto which promised it would treat EU citizens “no less favourably than they are at present”.

On top of this lack of reciprocity, it seems Britain wants to become the new champion of red tape. Each family member, including children, will have to make a separate application for “settled status”. Those who do not meet the five years residence requirement by the end of the grace period will have to make two applications: a first one to apply for staying and another one to apply for “settled status”. Moreover, no guarantees of equal treatment are provided between these applicants.

Red tape can be overcome; the real cause for concern lies in the continuing uncertainty. More than a year after the Brexit referendum, the British proposal leaves many unanswered questions. Will European students have to pay more – even after they have applied for the new academic year 2019-2020? Will doctors enjoy continued and guaranteed recognition of their qualifications in the UK? Why are frontier workers, who work in the UK but live in the EU, not mentioned at all? And why won’t the UK government simply confirm that the cut-off date for all European citizens will not be sooner than the date of Brexit itself?

European Court of Justice

While we have the greatest respect for the British legal system, courts apply the laws adopted by British politicians, who are currently unable to give sufficient guarantees for the years to come, let alone for a lifetime. British and European citizens should be able to enforce their rights under a mechanism in which the European Court of Justice plays a full role.

In early 2019, MEPs will have a final say on the Brexit deal. In the coming months we will work closely with the EU negotiator and the 27 member states to help steer negotiations. Our wish is to deliver an ambitious and progressive withdrawal agreement and we want to be clear that sufficient progress – especially on citizenship and the financial settlement – is needed before we can define the new relationship between the EU and the UK. Brexit negotiations must be completed by March 30th, 2019; we will not support any extension to this deadline, because this would require the UK to hold European elections in May 2019. That is simply unthinkable.

The EU has a common mission to extend, enhance and expand rights, not to reduce them. We will never endorse the retroactive removal of acquired rights. The European Parliament will reserve its right to reject any agreement that treats EU citizens, regardless of their nationality, less favourably than they are at present. For us, this is a question of basic fundamental rights and values, which are at the heart of the European project.

Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament Brexit steering group (BSG) chair and chair of the ALDE group chair; Manfred Weber, EPP group chair; Gianni Pittella, S&D group chair; Gabi Zimmer, GUE/NGL group chair; Ska Keller and Philippe Lamberts, Greens/EFA group co-chairs; Elmar Brok, BSG member; Roberto Gualtieri, BSG member; and Danuta Hubner, BSG member

This letter was previously published in the Irish Times


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