UK will seek ring-fencing of citizens' Brexit rights

The UK government is to ask the EU to agree to ring-fence the rights of British people living abroad in the EU and of EU citizens in the UK, after an amendment on this point was passed without opposition yesterday.

Prime Minister Theresa May is now expected to discuss with the other 27 EU leaders a deal to safeguard the citizens’ rights section of the Brexit negotiation, whatever happens with the rest of the withdrawal agreement.

Up to now both sides in the negotiations had followed the rule that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

Ring-fencing would avoid the current no-deal scenario under which Britons in the EU could have different rights depending on what individual EU countries decide. Without 'ring-fencing', a no-deal would also mean that many matters, such as UK state pensioners' healthcare or uprating of their British pensions would depend on future bilateral deals. Instead, the full range of rights in the draft withdrawal agreement would be retained for all Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. 

The amendment reads: "This House considers the Prime Minister’s statement of February 26 and requires the Prime Minister to seek at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the Withdrawal Agreement on Citizens' Rights and ensure its implementation prior to the UK’s exiting the European Union, whatever the outcome of negotiations on other aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement."

The vote came after a complicated series of events in Westminster yesterday, with the Conservative MP who proposed the amendment, Alberto Costa, reportedly having come under pressure to resign from his post as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS - go-between between government and parliament) due to him tabling the amendment, despite senior ministers giving their support.

This was later said to be due to a convention that members of the government, including PPSs, do not table amendments to government bills.

Mr Costa, whose parents are Italian immigrants to the UK, gained cross-party backing for his proposed amendment and when he read it last night and following cheers of support no one opposed it so it went through ‘on the nod’ (without a vote).

The proposal was technically an amendment to a motion by Prime Minister Theresa May, following her speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday, which simply notes the contents of the speech and says discussions with the EU are ongoing.

In the speech Mrs May said that she would put the withdrawal agreement deal to the MPs again by March 12 and that if the government does not win the vote it will table a motion to be voted on by March 13 at the latest, asking MPs if they approve leaving without a deal.

If they reject no-deal she said she would then give them a vote on March 14 on whether Parliament wants a short extension to article 50 – if they vote for that she will attempt to obtain it from the EU, she said. Yesterday an amendment to hold her to that promise on a vote was voted through by 502 to 20.

Also yesterday, a Labour motion for its preferred form of Brexit (a full customs union, close single market alignment and maintaining protection for the environment and workers’ rights) was voted down. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said afterwards Labour will now back a second  referendum.

“We will back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous no deal outcome,” he said. However he added they would also continue to push for ‘other available options’ including its ‘credible alternative plan’ or a general election

Another motion, by the SNP and Plaid Cymru to rule out a no-deal at any time, was also voted down.

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