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Theresa May's Brexit policy: what does it mean for EU citizens in UK and Britons abroad?

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Theresa May's Brexit policy: what does it mean for EU citizens in UK and Britons abroad?

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This article has been modified to take account of comments made by French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister Theresa May at their meeting on July 21.

“Politically, even in the event of severely damaged relations between the UK and the EU, both sides may see an interest in moving to shore up the status and rights of existing residents.”

That was how we previously reported Brexit’s likely impact on EU nationals living in the UK and Britons living in other EU countries, of the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union.

After all, no-one had seriously suggested any alternative scenario. The “Vote Leave” campaign had said that the rights of EU workers in the UK would be unaffected. Even the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage – clarifying an unfortunate comment from his parliamentary candidate which seemed to hint at possible deportations – stated clearly that EU migrants who had come to the UK legally would have the right to remain, even if “the EU was to behave badly” after a British vote to leave.

Three days after the referendum, arch-Leave campaigner Boris Johnson responded to ‘confusion’ over the status of EU nationals by saying “it’s absolutely clear that people from other European countries who are living here will have their rights protected”.

Two things have since become apparent. The first is that neither Nigel Farage (not then in 2014, nor at any time since), nor Boris Johnson, nor any pro-Brexit campaigner for that matter, had any authority to speak on behalf of a future British government (Johnson’s comments came well before his eventual promotion to Foreign Secretary).

The second is that the stance of the person whose opinion actually translates into policy – until recently Home Secretary (interior minister), now Prime Minister Theresa May – is subtly but significantly different.

I’ll stand by you – if you stand by me first

Theresa May’s position immediately after the referendum was that the status of the estimated three million EU nationals in the UK, like that of the 1.2 million Britons living in EU countries, would be factored “into negotiations”.

Stung by an outcry at the prospect of EU citizens being treated as “bargaining chips” during the exit process, May’s team sought to revise her policy, saying that the legal status of EU nationals living in the UK would be guaranteed – “as long as British nationals living in EU countries have their status guaranteed too”.

Following their meeting in Paris this week, François Hollande became the first EU leader to promise that Britons living in his country would be welcome to stay. However no more details were given and the president and his government face a tough re-election challenge next year. Theresa May again refrained from giving a similar guarantee to EU nationals in the UK.


The matter was debated in the House of Commons earlier this month: a motion calling on the government urgently to give EU nationals currently living in the UK the right to remain was passed by 245 votes to two.

A full transcript of the debate is available here. Strikingly, some leading Brexit campaigners were the most vociferous in arguing in favour of maintaining EU nationals’ existing rights. The Labour MP Gisela Stuart invited the government to “send a signal to the everybody in the rest of Europe as to how we expect them to treat UK citizens living abroad”.

Boris Johnson reminded MPs of the Vote Leave campaign’s “countless” reassurances to EU nationals and said it was “very, very disappointing that that should be called into question”.


Sticking doggedly to the government line, and almost alone in the face of the MPs ranged against him, the immigration minister James Brokenshire (he has since been promoted to the Cabinet, responsible for Northern Ireland) stressed the importance of fighting for the rights of Britons overseas, saying that they and EU citizens would “be protected through reciprocal arrangements” as part of negotiations that could be concluded “as quickly as possible”.

Philip Hammond, shortly before his move from foreign secretary to finance minister, said he was banking on Britain and the EU coming to a quick agreement on the rights of people currently making use of the free movement rules. However, he also said it would be ‘absurd’ to promise unilaterally that EU nationals could stay in the UK.

But the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told the parliamentary debate that EU citizens needed to be reassured “long before the moment when we leave the European Union. The problem of linking the issue of British citizens in the EU is that a deal on our leaving the EU is unlikely until we actually leave it”.

One difficulty is that the EU has banned informal negotiations until the UK invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to trigger the exit process. Some reports now suggest the move is unlikely to be made this year, although the new “‘Brexit Minister’ David Davis has said he expects it to happen by the end of 2016.

Assurances, assurances

In parliament James Brokenshire pointed out that people who had been resident in the UK for five years could qualify for permanent residence. British officials have been working overtime to reassure both EU nationals in the UK, and Britons overseas, about their status.


But reassurances about people’s current situation has not helped to ease concerns about their legal status in the future. Hundreds of worried French people packed into a London hall earlier this month to hear advice from lawyers. Many have decided to seek dual nationality, as have British nationals in other EU countries. Spain however – home to an estimated 400,000 Britons – does not generally allow dual citizenship, prompting thousands to call for a change in the rules.

Lawyers have disagreed over whether international agreements such as the Vienna Convention could guarantee residency rights for citizens once their EU status ceased to apply.

The European Convention on Human Rights has also been cited as a possible source of protection. Politically, it is also hard to imagine a worst case scenario of a massive exodus of people from the EU to the UK and vice versa.

The uncertainty helps neither residents in other EU countries nor their employers. In the UK health service chiefs have joined the calls for the immigration status of foreign-born workers to be urgently clarified.


But people’s concerns go beyond the right to residency, with many questions also being raised about the impact of Brexit on issues such as healthcare, pensions and benefits.

A retired British barrister living in southern France told Euronews he remembered coming to the country before the UK’s EU membership as a time of “visa restrictions and currency curtailments”. Blaming both Brussels and London for Brexit, his main personal concern amid the pound’s slide since the referendum is economic.

“We have spent hundreds of thousands of euros poured into the French economy to do up our house. Brexit will massively curtail the British buying and doing up houses in France. Our house is probably unsellable now as it is too expensive for the average French person, and the British won’t buy it and they seem to be the drivers of the housing market around here,” he said.

A road paved with good intentions

The Brexit Minister David Davis has said he is determined to win a “generous settlement” for EU migrants already in Britain, and for Britons living in EU countries such as Spain and France. But he also warned in an interview with the Daily Mail that a cut-off date might have to be imposed, removing the protection of the right to remain for new arrivals, if Brexit brought what the paper called a “surge” in new EU migrants coming to Britain before it actually left the bloc.

The British government’s stance reflects the new reality: that the UK will soon be no longer a member, however troublesome, of the EU club – but an adversary in what could well become tortuous negotiations with the European Union.

It has been said repeatedly that the only certainty about the UK’s future relations with the EU – including the future status of people living on the “wrong” side of the new divide – is uncertainty. For EU nationals in Britain, and Britons abroad, it is something they are going to have to get used to.


What they have said

David Cameron (giving his last speech to Parliament as prime minister, July 13:
“We are working hard to do what we want, which is to give a guarantee to EU citizens that they will have their rights respected – all those who have come to this country. The only circumstance in which I could ever envisage a future Government trying to undo that guarantee would be if British citizens in other European countries did not have their rights respected. I think it is important to have reciprocity. The new Prime Minister will be working to give that guarantee as fast as we can.”

Boris Johnson (parliamentary debate, July 4):
“I would like to put on record what I think has been said already – that countless times the Vote Leave campaign gave exactly this reassurance to everybody from EU countries living and working here, and it is very, very disappointing that that should be called into question. I think it is absolutely right to issue the strongest possible reassurance to EU nationals in this country, not just for moral or humanitarian reasons, but for very, very sound economic reasons as well. They are welcome, they are necessary, they are a vital part of our society, and I will passionately support this motion tonight.”

Yvette Cooper (Labour MP, parliamentary debate, July 4):
“All of us have a responsibility not to give succour to extremists who want to exploit the present situation. That should mean giving confidence to people who have been settled here, often for many years, contributing to our public services or working setting up businesses.”

James Brokenshire (then Home Office minister, parliamentary debate, July 4):
“EU nationals can have our full and unreserved reassurance that their right to enter, work, study and live in the UK remains unchanged. We value the tremendous contribution they make every day in towns, cities and villages up and down the country. We fully expect that the legal status of EU nationals living in the UK, and of UK nationals living in EU member states, will be properly protected. Given that both the UK and the EU want to maintain a close relationship, we are confident that we will work together and that both EU and British citizens will be protected through reciprocal arrangements. As part of the negotiations, we want to be able to conclude these matter as quickly as possible.”

Andy Burnham (Shadow interior minister, opposition Labour Party, parliamentary debate, July 4):
“The thrust of Government policy is already to treat them as second-class citizens, because they do not have the same voting rights as other citizens. If they are now to be left in the lurch for two or three years, how will they feel at the end of that process? What will they think of our country? What will the countries that they come from think of us?”

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London (ambassadors’ summit, July 12):
“It is simply not good enough to leave EU citizens in London in limbo… The irresponsible position taken by some politicians has caused unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety among communities in London. You cannot play politics with people’s lives.”

Philip Hammond (then Foreign Secretary, BBC Radio, July 4):
“It would be absurd to make a unilateral commitment about EU nationals living in the UK, without at the very least getting a similar commitment from the European Union about British nationals living in the EU.”

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Scottish National Party MP, parliamentary debate, July 4):
“More than 4,000 EU nationals live in my constituency and do essential jobs in our NHS and our schools. They also work in our private sector and play a critical role in our fish processing sector. The Government’s failure to offer reassurance on the future status of those EU nationals is causing not only distress but huge economic uncertainty.”

David Davis, Brexit Minister (Daily Mail interview, July 17):
“If you do it all together nobody is a bargaining counter. It is based on the presumption that they (the EU) will be rational about their own citizens’ interest, which they will be.”

French President François Hollande (joint news conference in Paris, July 21):
“There is no doubt that the French people who reside in the UK will be able to continue to work there and that the British people in France will be able to continue to work there and spend as much time as they wish.”

Theresa May, British Prime Minister (also in Paris, July 21):
“I expect to be able to do so (guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK), and the only situation in which that wouldn’t be possible is if British citizens’ rights in European member states were not being protected.”

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