The British government has given more details of proposed rights for EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit, in a new 15-page document.
In Parliament Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged the anxiety and uncertainty many Europeans had suffered and said “we want you to stay”.
EU nationals, she said, made an “invaluable contribution” to the UK – adding that she had sought a deal protecting their rights before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty setting in motion the formal process for Britain’s departure from the European Union. The EU insisted the matter would be a priority but had to be part of the official negotiations.
Before fleshing out details of proposals for a “reciprocal agreement” outlined at last week’s EU Council meeting, May said there had been a “very positive response from individual leaders”.
“I know that there has been some anxiety about what would happen to EU citizens at the point we leave the European Union,” she told the House of Commons. “Today I want to put that anxiety to rest. I want to completely reassure people that under these plans, no EU citizen currently in the UK lawfully will be asked to leave at the point the UK leaves the EU. We want you to stay.”
Under the government’s proposals, EU nationals with at least five years’ continuous residence in the UK will be offered “settled status” – granting the same rights to healthcare, education, welfare and pensions as British nationals. In addition, they will be able to bring over close family members.
“No families will be split up. Family dependents who join a qualifying EU citizen here before the UK’s exit will be able to apply for ‘settled status’ after five years, and after the UK has left the European Union EU citizens with ‘settled status’ will be able to bring family members from overseas on the same terms as British nationals,” Theresa May said.
Some flexibility is accorded to allow people to build the necessary five years’ continuous residence: in Parliament May talked of a “grace period” and both she and the government document say there will be “no cliff-edge” at which rights are suddenly lost when the UK leaves the EU.
There is mention of a “specified date” – often referred to as a “cut-off point” – to determine eligibility for the rights package. The government says this will be discussed with the EU “as part of a reciprocal deal” and will be between 29 March 2017 – the date Article 50 was triggered – and the date of the UK’s withdrawal. The EU has argued that the effective date should be that of the UK’s actual departure.
EU citizens will have to apply to qualify for the new rights. The government says it wants to simplify the proces: a “light touch” approach is to be adopted and the much-criticised 85-page application form for permanent residency is to be replaced. However people who had struggled through that process now face the prospect of having to apply again under the new – albeit streamlined – system. There will be new residency cards for EU nationals.
At least one anomaly is to be eradicated: a previous requirement for permanent residency, that meant economically inactive EU citizens had to show evidence of “comprehensive sickness insurance”, is to be abolished.
Only a short paragraph of the 15-page document is devoted to this, but the government repeats its stance that the European Court of Justice “will not have jurisdiction in the UK” after Brexit. The paper states that the arrangements will be enforceable by UK courts and the commitments “will have the status of international law”. The EU has maintained that the ECJ should continue to oversee the rights of its nationals in the UK.
Reactions hot and cold
“I believe it is a generous offer,” Theresa May told the Commons. Her spokesman said “it is the start of a negotiation”, adding that “we believe we have made a fair offer”.
Some commentators have said that the government should have made such a move much earlier – a point echoed by opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “The truth is it is too little, too late,” he told Parliament, accusing the prime minister of dragging the issue of people’s rights into the complex Brexit trade negotiations. “This isn’t a generous offer. This is confirmation the government is prepared to use people as bargaining chips,” he said.
Ian Blackford for the Scottish National Party said the plan raised more questions than it answered. “These people play by the rules, pay taxes and make Britain what it is. Theresa May is treating these people like dirt and we should unilaterally guarantee these people’s right to stay,” he said.
However, Theresa May and her policy document stress that there must be a similar “reciprocal” deal for British citizens in EU states.
Among some early reaction from campaigners for EU citizens’ rights there was some recognition of advances made – but also plenty of anger expressed on social media at what many see as existing rights being taken away, and new conditions and burdensome bureaucracy being imposed.
The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier responded coolly to the offer on citizens’ rights, saying in a tweet that Brussels’ goal was the same level of rights as under EU law. “More ambition, clarity and guarantees needed than in today’s UK position,” he said, before directing readers to the EU’s own published principles on citizens’ rights.