EU parliament’s Brexit chief attacks UK offer

The UK’s offer on expatriate rights after Brexit is ‘a damp squib’ which would see EU nationals in the UK being treated less favourably than at present and as ‘second class citizens’ , EU parliament chiefs say.

Writing in The Guardian – and confirmed to Connexion this morning as having wide backing from the parliament - the parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt attacks the UK’s offer as inferior to the EU’s one which he says is much simpler because it offers to maintain all of the same rights and protections as now for established expatriates. If it is not improved on the parliament will veto it, he says.

The UK offer replaces the status quo with the chance for established EU27 expats to apply for a new British law concept called ‘settled status’, which the UK government says would maintain their key rights in areas like pensions, healthcare and benefits.

However in his piece, Belgian MEP Mr Verhofstadt says that under the UK’s proposed status EU27 citizens in the UK would essentially be treated as ‘third country nationals’, with an inferior status to Britons and worse rights than they have now.

They would for example, lose the right to vote in local elections and may face tougher requirements for bringing family members to the UK from abroad than those that currently apply to EU27 expats in the UK under EU free movement laws, he says. In future the UK offer says that EU27 expats’ rights to bring in family such as a foreign spouse would either be aligned with those applying to British citizens in the UK or alternatively with whatever may eventually be agreed in a future deal with regard to the rights of EU citizens to come into the UK after Brexit. Currently if a Briton in the UK wants to bring in non-EU family from abroad, they need to meet certain minimum income requirements, whereas this does not apply to EU27 expats using their free movement right to live in the UK.

The Guardian piece adds that by failing to reciprocate the EU’s ‘simple and clear’ position the UK is creating uncertainty over various details not clearly spelt out in the UK offer document.

It also criticises the UK for failing so far to confirm the ‘cut-off date’ for EU27 expats’ entry to the UK in order to benefit from the negotiated protected rights, which the UK has said could be anywhere from the date of the article 50 trigger (March 29, 2017) to the date of Brexit (expected to be March 29, 2019). The EU wants it to be the latter.

In the Brexit negotiations it is expected that whatever is agreed for EU citizens in the UK would also apply reciprocally to Britons in the EU.

The comments come as the second round of Brexit negotiations approach next week, expected to include discussion of ‘citizens’ rights’, after the UK and EU published their respective positions.

The Guardian piece has been welcomed by expat groups the3million and British in Europe. BiE chair Jane Golding said: "The European Parliament’s statement is a clear indication of how seriously it takes the rights of UK citizens living in Europe and confirms its members' intention to put citizens first.”

The UK however has said the letter presents a ‘deformed’ account of its offer.

The EU Parliament’s deputy spokeswoman, Marjory van den Broeke, said Mr Verhofstadt’s letter was co-written with the other members of the parliament’s Brexit steering committee and the leaders of the largest political groups and has the support of the parliament’s president Antonio Tajani. “It’s a widely supported letter,” she said. “It has also been published in different languages in newspapers in several other EU states. It says quite clearly what the MEPs steering this process think.”

She said that although the parliament is not directly involved in the Brexit negotiations, it will have “the final word” because it will be required to vote on the deal at the end of the process. It is also able to express its position, for example through the resolution it passed in April. Ms van den Broeke said the parliament also retains the possibility to vote further resolutions on specific aspects as the negotiations progress, and there is a close working relationship between the EU’s chief negotiator commissioner Michel Barnier and the EU Parliament’s Brexit steering group.

It is therefore important that the parliament be involved early in the process so as not to end up with a situation where there are “major problems” at the end because parliament doesn’t agree, she said.

The parliament’s view is that any status not equal to the current one is unsatisfactory and therefore comparable to EU citizens being treated like “third country” ones.

Connexion therefore understands that the parliament would wish, for example, for Britons in the EU to maintain in future the possibility to vote in local elections and to continue to be able to move freely around the EU for life (even though it is not clear that this would apply after Brexit to Britons who never left the UK).

The UK offer requires those eligible for ‘settled status’ to apply for it, but promises a 'streamlined, digital' and 'user-friendly’ system, saying the government will use existing government records as proof as much as possible to minimise the need to provide documents. Obtaining the status will require five years’ residence but EU27 citizens living in the UK at the cut-off point will be able to apply to stay on so as to accrue these five years.

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Even those EU27 citizens in the UK who previously applied for permanent residence cards under existing EU law procedures would have to reapply for the new UK status, but in this case they will aim to make the new application “as streamlined as possible”.

The EU’s position on Britons’ rights in the EU after Brexit meanwhile remains linked to the existing permanent residence concept, which similarly requires five years’ residence. The EU has also said that those expats in residence before Brexit happens may stay until they have accrued five years.

The UK offer says ‘settled status’ would ‘generally’ be lost in the future after two years away from the country unless the person can show ‘strong ties’ to the UK. EU permanent residence is also lost after more than two consecutive years away from the country of residence.

Under the ‘article 50’ rules, there are two years for the UK and the EU to agree on a leaving deal, including such crucial matters as expat rights and the ‘divorce bill’ owed by the UK (the ‘future relationship’ between the UK and EU, including on trade, is expected to be part of a separate agreement).

If no deal can be agreed (and approved by the EU parliament) in time then an extension may be allowed if all of the EU27 agree, otherwise the UK would leave with no deal; the ‘hardest’ possible Brexit and with no protection for expatriates. In his piece Mr Verhofstadt says the parliament would not support an extension because the UK must leave before the next EU elections in May 2019. 

Expat campaigners as well as the group of MEPs known as the 'EU citizens taskforce', which formed to call for the strongest-possible protection for expats, have been calling for the citizens' rights element to be agreed as early as possible and then 'ring-fenced' off from the rest of the talks to it would stand even if the rest of the deal fails. However so far this is not the official aim of either the UK or the EU.

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