Campaigners have welcomed the UK’s request to the EU to work together on ring-fencing the citizens’ rights section of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
This would mean it stands alone if the UK leaves without a deal, which is now more likely due to hardening attitudes from prime ministerial front-runner Boris Johnson and EU leaders.
Campaign group British in Europe (BiE) welcomed the UK request, saying that if it is successful, Britons’ rights in France would be protected and will not depend on France’s internal no-deal laws and bilateral deals.
It would cover pension uprating, export-able disability benefits and paid healthcare between the UK and France.
The request came after BiE met Brexit Minister Steve Barclay, along with the3million group for EU citizens abroad in the UK.
In a letter to EU negotiator Michel Barnier, Mr Barclay said ring-fencing as proposed by the groups was not about “re-opening” the negotiated deal.
It just means the rights section would stand alone if all else fails. So far the UK parliament has refused to ratify the deal; a vital step before the UK could leave on those terms. Departure is due on October 31 this year and Mr Johnson says it should go ahead with or without a deal.
In March the EU rejected a similar request, although not so strongly worded. It said at the time it was too complicated to hive off parts of the deal, so it was all or nothing.
Contrary to several media reports, on going to press there had as yet been no EU response to Mr Barclay’s latest letter to EU negotiator Mr Barnier.
However an EU source told Connexion the EU’s position has not changed.
In a letter of March 25 responding to a previous letter from Mr Barclay scoping out the EU’s thoughts, Mr Barnier said the rights section is part of an “overall and comprehensive approach”, including ensuring there is no hard Ireland/ Northern Ireland border “to the benefit of the citizens there”.
It was “far from straightforward” to work out which parts could safely be “carved out” and the best way to safeguard citizens’ rights is to ratify the withdrawal agreement (WA), he said.
BiE co-chairwoman Fiona Godfrey said the group has been asking for a meeting with the Brexit Minister for three years (Mr Barclay is the third in the post). “We were very happy he listened and the letter was clearly-worded and reflected our concerns,” she said.
“There are parts of the WA on citizens’ rights that we’re not happy with, such as not giving us continued free movement [to live and work in other states apart from the one where people live when Brexit happens] but we’re not asking for that to be renegotiated. We’re just saying take the text and cut it out and if we’re heading towards a no-deal let’s ring-fence that.”
As for Mr Barnier’s previous arguments she said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ll wait and see if we get a response and what it says. We’re continuing to press for this, and renewing our contacts in the new European Parliament.”
She said several political groups in the previous EP had backed ring-fencing, though the campaigners had not won the full parliament’s support.
She added: “With no-deal we’d be looking at 27 different pieces of national legislation and we would be under national third-country [non-EU] immigration regimes, which are in no way comparable to what we have now as EU citizens and largely not comparable to the rights we would keep in the WA.”
No-deal is once again an increasing risk after recent comments by UK prime minister frontrunner Boris Johnson.
He has threatened not to pay the Brexit withdrawal bill unless changes are made to the WA; however EU leaders are said to be losing patience with the UK.
Irish president Leo Varadkar has said the view among the leaders is it must now be a Brexit with the existing deal or no deal. There is “enormous hostility” towards the idea of another extension for anything other than a general election or referendum, he told journalists.
Britons in France who have not applied for cartes de séjour as European citizens may therefore only have four months left before a no-deal exit potentially piles on the pressure at prefectures. France’s no-deal laws say Britons would then have six months to apply for a non-EU citizen card.