28 June 2017
The Prime Minister has launched a war with Brussels over the continuing rights of EU nationals living in the United Kingdom.
The issue, which had been defined as a key early priority by EU documents in the run-up to the start of formal negotiations, has hung over Mrs May for months. Campaigners on all sides of the debate, including Brexit icon Nigel Farage, had called for May to make a unilateral declaration in favour of protecting the rights of those who had come to the UK legally, but the government has maintained that it was essential to stay silent on the issue to ensure that British subjects in the rest of the European are guaranteed reciprocal rights.
But last week the Prime Minister broke her silence, offering a “fair and serious” deal to EU leaders. It will give EU migrants already in the UK, and those who arrive during an agreed grace period, the opportunity to take on “special status” and enjoy the same rights as British nationals in the UK after being resident in the country for five years. Once the grace period is over, however, EU citizens will be subject to the same immigration system as the rest of the world – a state of affairs that will offer much relief to a rapidly over-crowding United Kingdom.
But the introduction of a grace period in the first place is still a serious cause for concern, with Mr Farage taking to Twitter to expose that “new UK government rules on EU citizens still set no cut-off date. Numbers will continue to grow”. With annual net migration still way above government targets of 100,000, expect outrage at too generous a window.
Others will take issue with the government’s position on child benefit for EU migrants, with early indications that the current outrageous status quo will persist – meaning that the British taxpayer will continue forking out £30m a year to foreign children who don’t live in the country.
May however defended her offer, saying that “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.”
But the immediate response from Brussels was less than enthusiastic, with Council President Donald Tusk claiming the offer is “below our expectations” and that it “risks worsening the situation”. He and Commission President Juncker have said that they will continue fighting for a more comprehensive deal.
Others were less damning, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling the offer “a good start”, before going on to add that “there are still many many other questions linked to the exit, including on finances and the relationship with Ireland” – suggesting that the German Chancellor, for once in her life, agrees with the British people in wanting the government to get on with negotiations as quickly as possible.
At home, political leaders on the left were singing from the same hymn sheet with Labour’s Keir Starmer and Liberal Democrat Tim Farron both claiming that the offer was “too little too late”, insisting that the government put forward more generous terms.
The events of the last week have been the opening gambit in what could be a long process of give and take. Watch this space.