'Expat rights must not be swept under the carpet'

Campaigners for Britons in the EU told EU negotiator Michel Barnier this week of fears that the best deal for expats could get forgotten in the rush to move onto trade talks

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Rights of British people in the EU and EU citizens in the UK must not be swept under the carpet in efforts to move on talking about trade, campaigners told the EU’s chief negotiator this week.

The British in Europe (BiE) coalition met Michel Barnier to tell him their concerns and found him “in listening mode”, BiE chairwoman Jane Golding said.

“We got an hour with him, which was fantastic,” said Ms Golding, a British lawyer who lives in Germany. “It followed a two-hour meeting last week with his technical team and his deputy. We also met [EU Parliament Brexit coordinator] Guy Verhofstadt and were given the opportunity to speak before the important constitutional affairs committee of the parliament.”

Ms Golding said Mr Barnier told the campaigners that he will meet again with them after the crucial EU leaders’ summit in December which will consider what progress has been made in the talks.

“He also said that once the process of drafting the exit treaty gets under way [formalising what has been agreed in the negotiations] he would like us to continue to have input into that, which was very positive.”

The European Council summit on December 14-15 will decide whether ‘sufficient progress’ has been made on the key ‘phase one’ issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Northern Ireland border. If the leaders say ‘yes’, they will allow the start of ‘phase two’ talks on the future EU/UK relationship (including on trade) as well as a possible transition period. The latter refers to two years or more after Brexit day during which nothing would change, in hopes that remaining issues, such as regulations on flights, the trade deal etc, may be resolved without a disruptive ‘cliff-edge’ change.

EU sources have told Connexion that ‘sufficient progress’ does not mean discussion of phase one matters would end, however BiE fear they could get lost amid all the other issues that will take centre stage once phase two starts.

Ms Golding said: “It’s pretty clear the EU and UK want to be seen to be making progress and they probably want to show success on citizens’ rights because they know that the financial settlement and Irish border questions are so difficult.

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“They may want to close what is perceived as being the more straightforward issue – sufficient progress would be found and that would be it for that.

“But we’re very concerned that actually we’re not closing in on a deal that’s good for people. There’s been a lot of talk of a deal being within ‘touching distance’ but we don’t see it that way.

“There are fundamental issues which are outstanding, free movement being the biggest of them.”

The campaigners want full free movement to continue for Britons in the EU, meaning they would retain for life the right to live and work across the EU. EU negotiators have so far only proposed that Britons would retain these rights in the countries where they are established on Brexit day.

Ms Golding said: “The position on free movement also has impact on a range of other issues like recognition of qualifications and the right to run a business.

“In our view free movement is one single right – and it applies across the territory of all the member states. If our existing rights are going to be protected, as has been promised, that is one of them.”

She added: “It’s not just about whether or not a British citizen in an EU27 country can move and live in another EU country later on but also whether they can go and work there and be covered by all the same conditions as now.

“We have members who work for companies with multiple locations in the EU and it will affect their career options if they can’t easily move and they will be passed up for promotions. Others have self-employed businesses which rely on them being able to work across the EU27 and they could lose their livelihoods.

“It’s not just lawyers and accountants, it’s self-employed caterers who move according to the season; it’s IT consultants who work on a contract in one country and then another and need to move easily.”

Ms Golding added: “We made all these points to Michel Barnier and he was definitely in listening mode. He also reiterated to us his red lines, such as family reunification rights and export of benefits for EU27 citizens in the UK. All the areas we raised are still on the table to be discussed and he is aware of our concerns.”

The campaigners also raised their wish for ‘ring-fencing’ of citizen’s rights to safeguard them in case there is no overall deal, but Mr Barnier only stated that he wanted to reach a deal.

Ms Golding said the EU’s demand that EU27 citizens covered by the exit deal must retain their full EU family reunification rights in the UK after Brexit might also benefit British expats who move back to the UK after Brexit.

The point under dispute is that if a Briton in the UK wants to bring in a family member from a ‘third country’ (outside the EU), then basic UK immigration law applies (for example they may be required to have earnings above a set minimum). Under EU case law these restrictions do not apply to EU27 citizens in the UK or to British people moving back from elsewhere in the EU – ie. anyone who has been ‘exercising their EU free movement rights’.

This point remains to be clarified but in future ‘third country’ might also apply to family members from the EU.

Ms Golding said the UK may be backing down over demands for Britons to retain local voting rights in the EU, with negotiator David Davis having recently said the UK may seek bilateral deals on this. One complication is that laws vary across the EU in terms of local voting rights of non-EU citizens, she said.

Ms Golding said Guy Verhofstadt told the campaigners the parliament would continue to make citizens’ rights “a real priority”. “The parliament will not consider there has been ‘sufficient progress’ unless there is ‘real progress’ was his message,” she said.

Mr Verhofstadt did not speak to them about ‘associate citizenship’ for Britons in the EU, she said. “Things have gone quite quiet on that. The problem with it is that it would require treaty change, so it’s not something that could happen overnight – you’d have to have all 27 member states on board. We’re still pushing for it, but it’s not a first priority.”

BiE has now written to all EU heads of state about their concerns that sufficient progress may be confirmed without all fundamental issues being in place, and are encouraging supporters to write to their own MEPs.

“The problem is that even if there is further discussion on some of these issues after ‘sufficient progress’ is confirmed, they will be thrown in with a whole bunch of ‘future relationship’ issues such as airline slots. At the moment there are three priorities, but they’d get lost in that huge pot of issues,” Ms Golding said.

“The fear that there may be no deal if sufficient progress is not found quickly is something that is always raised and yes, December is a crunch point, but it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no deal – it could be considered further in the new year. We want to keep the focus on citizens’ rights and we don’t want them swept under the carpet. There is a danger of that if sufficient progress is found now and they go into phase two.”

  • After the sixth round of negotiations earlier this month Michel Barnier told a journalist he would expect further clarifications from the UK on matters including the financial settlement within two weeks if 'sufficient progress' was to be likely by the summit on December 14-15 – which elapses tomorrow. It is unclear if any such clarifications have been made. Dates of an expected seventh round of negotiations have not been set.