This article originally published on January 14 has been updated.
The European Parliament is stepping up warnings over citizens’ rights after Brexit, expressing fears in particular that safeguards for EU nationals living in the UK are being jeopardised by Boris Johnson’s government.
A resolution adopted by MEPs in Strasbourg stresses that their approval for the divorce deal will depend on assurances given, especially over the UK’s EU Settlement Scheme. Under this scheme, Europeans will have to register in order to continue living in the country.
The motion was passed on Wednesday (January 15) by 610 votes in favour to 29 against, with 68 abstentions.
It expresses “grave concern” over the fate of EU citizens who fail to meet the registration deadline on 30 June 2021. Last year UK Home Office minister Brandon Lewis suggested that people who had not applied to formalise their status by that date could “theoretically” be deported.
However, the minister has since rowed back on those comments, while the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said he had been assured by the UK's Brexit minister after the vote that there would be no automatic deportations. The UK Home Office (interior ministry) said later in a statement that people who missed the original deadline would be given a "further opportunity to apply".
The MEPs' resolution also accuses the British government of failing to protect EU nationals against potential future discrimination by employers or landlords, and says inadequate registration infrastructure could leave people exposed. Europeans living in the UK should be "issued with a physical document as proof of their right to reside", it says.
Concerns are repeated over the UK’s plans for an independent authority which under the withdrawal deal is meant to monitor arrangements. The text calls on the UK to ensure it is “genuinely independent”. The British government has been accused of watering down the body’s powers in the Brexit bill going through the UK parliament.
'People want certainty'
Addressing the debate on Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to both EU nationals in the UK and Britons in EU countries, and described how European students she met on last week's trip to London had expressed their concerns.
"The same question came back time and again, with different personal twists. One came from a young man who came from Benelux, living in the UK who was of course worried about his future. Another came from a British lady who has an Italian husband who was worried about his status, what's going to happen with him," she said. "People want certainty about their lives and their future, and certainty about the future of their loved ones."
Guy Verhofstadt – who warned in December that automatic consent for the divorce deal would not be given unless problems over citizens' rights were resolved – now linked the issue to the next stage of EU-UK negotiations.
"If they're not addressed now, before the end of the month, they won't be on the table before the end of the year. I cannot imagine that the European Parliament will agree, for example on an FTA (Free Trade Agreement), without solving the problem and the concerns of the EU citizens and UK citizens," he told MEPs.
The resolution calls for provisions in the divorce deal to be fully implemented. The agreement gives EU nationals in the UK and Britons in the EU – plus family members – the right to retain residency and social security rights after Brexit.
As long as the deal is ratified, freedom to move and live within the EU and UK will continue during the planned transition period until the end of 2020. People resident by then in the relevant country will be allowed to stay when this period ends, and be able to apply for permanent residency after five years.
The warnings over citizens' rights echo recent comments by senior EU leaders. Last week von der Leyen reminded both the UK and the EU of their obligations under the divorce deal.
Media reports in December said the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had written to the UK Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay expressing concern over the fate of Europeans who failed to apply for residency, and over the monitoring body.
The campaigning body for citizens’ rights, the3million group, has accused the British government and Boris Johnson of reneging on previous pledges that EU nationals living in the UK would “automatically” be given the right to stay.
UK Home Office figures show that nearly 2.6 million of more than three million EU citizens living in the UK had applied for settled status by the end of November. More than 2.2 million cases have been concluded, with 59% being granted full status and 41% "pre-settled status" – a stepping stone for people who have been resident in the UK for under the required five years. Only a handful have been refused.
After Tuesday's debate, the Brexit Party MEP Robert Rowland – who claimed he was denied the chance to ask a question – criticised via Twitter "such extreme language and scare tactics" over EU citizens' rights. "The EU should instead ask itself why so many come to the UK?" he asked.
'Regrets' for end of free movement
The European Parliament's resolution also calls on EU countries to provide “legal certainty” for Britons living on the continent, and urges that future free movement and voting rights be guaranteed. Regretting that freedom of movement between the EU and the UK will no longer apply, the text notes that many UK nationals resident in EU nations are opposed to losing rights they currently enjoy.
This brought an angry response in the chamber from the Brexit Party MEP and former Conservative government minister, Ann Widdecombe. "The ending of free movement was a massive factor in the British public's decision to leave the EU. It was one of the biggest driving forces – and yet there appears to be, within this parliament today, political myopia towards that," she said.
Boris Johnson's government has pledged to end preferential treatment for EU citizens coming to live in the UK. It says entry requirements will be subject to skills and job offers, while benefits will be restricted and charges increased for future EU migrants.
The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the EU and the UK and agreed by European national leaders needs to be ratified by the European and British parliaments before the January 31 deadline.
Despite MEPs’ concerns, many will be aware that unless the deal is ratified, the default legal outcome would be a no-deal Brexit with citizens’ rights enshrined in the agreement stripped away.
The European Parliament’s plenary session is the last to be attended by British MEPs, who will give up their seats under Brexit, before the UK’s departure from the EU at the end of the month.