Tuesday, May 28

UK citizens staying in Britain will get the same rights as British: Theresa May



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 as preferred by the European commission.

Related video: May’s Brexit agenda for EU council (Provided by Sky News)

EU citizens already in the UK – and those who arrive lawfully 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 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 1.2 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 EU 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.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, 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 the3million.

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, founder of the3million, 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.”

The3million, 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 on Friday. 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 EU freedoms by living and working in Britain.

She said the EU had pledged to give the British living on the continent their full rights 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.

“We believe there must be a clear commitment that there will be no change to the status of EU nationals in the UK. This is not only the right thing to do, but it will also help deliver a reciprocal agreement for the 1.2 million UK nationals living in the EU.”

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “These proposals are frankly too little too late, and leave millions of people still facing unanswered questions over their futures here. It is simply not good enough.”

After May’s departure, the 27 remaining EU leaders took just four minutes to take the next step in the process for choosing new host cities for the two EU agencies being removed from London. The European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority, based in Canary Wharf and employing 1,050 people, will move to other EU cities after Brexit. EU leaders have now decided on the contest rules for choosing new host cities, paving the way for decisions on locations in the autumn.

An immigration bill was among the eight Brexit-focused pieces of legislation set out in Wednesday’s Queens speech, and No 10 has stressed that it remains committed to the target of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands.

The prime minister also promised to streamline the administration of the new system, replacing the current cumbersome application form with simpler “digital tools”.

May’s account of the broad principles underlying the government’s offer left a number of key questions unanswered, including what would happen to the children of those granted the new status. Full details will be published in a paper to be laid before parliament on Monday.

But her emollient tone chimed with the government’s less adversarial approach to the talks since the snap general election wiped out May’s majority. Six weeks ago, the prime minister stood outside No 10 and accused unnamed figures in Brussels of issuing “threats”, claiming: “There are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper.”

But with May now forced to govern with a minority in the Commons, she is under pressure – including from within her own cabinet – to take a less combative approach.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has said the government will make the economy the top priority in talks, and could agree to transitional arrangements lasting up to four years, to avoid the country being driven over a “cliff edge” as a result of the talks.

Meanwhile, senior Labour figures, including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, are pressing for the government to put the possibility of Britain remaining a member of the european single market back on the agenda.

After outlining her proposals, May left the dinner to allow her fellow leaders to continue discussions.

Earlier at the summit, the Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, suggested that there was wriggle room in the EU position on citizens’ rights. Brussels has insisted that all EU nationals who move to Britain before the UK’s withdrawal retain all their current freedoms and have them protected by the European court of justice.

Grybauskaitė said: “We need to think about the future, and the sooner we settle the future, the better for all of us … For us, the cutoff date is not so important. It is up to Britain to decide how much they they involve the EU judiciary.”

However, Merkel, indicated that there would be intense negotiations over the issue. She said: “My tendency is to offer the most far-reaching guarantees for EU citizens as possible, but I can not preempt the discussion.