Responding to the Prime Minister’s keynote speech outlining the Government’s negotiating position on exiting the EU, campaigners called on Ms May to “immediately and unilaterally” protect the status of Europeans residing in Britain.
A joint statement issued by the3million – which campaigns to preserve the rights of British citizens in Europe and Europeans in the UK after Brexit – and several migrant rights groups called for a guarantee to be made before Article 50 is triggered.
Ms May has set a deadline of the end of March to begin renegotiating Britain’s position in Europe.
But activists fear the rights of EU workers could be used as a bargaining chip in the upcoming Brexit talks.
The statement, issued hours after Ms May ruled out guaranteeing EU workers’ status in the UK, read: “It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister has not used this speech as an opportunity to unilaterally guarantee that all European citizens or those living in the UK under the protection of EU treaty rights will have the right to remain here after Brexit.
“All EU citizens resident in Britain should get a firm assurance in law that they will be able to continue living in the UK, with exactly the same rights of residence as they have now.
“This should happen no later than the moment at which Article 50 is triggered to end the uncertainty that millions of our family members, our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours are experiencing."
Ms May said in her speech that she hoped to deal with the issue of protecting rights for EU nationals in Britain “as soon as possible”.
“I have told other EU leaders that we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now,” she said.
“Many of them favour such an agreement - one or two others do not - but I want everyone to know that it remains an important priority for Britain - and for many other member states - to resolve this challenge as soon as possible. Because it is the right and fair thing to do.”
But former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the Prime Minister's stance on EU workers' rights.
The Labour MP tweeted: "Start of May speech says protect workers rights. End threatens to ditch them/UK model if we don't get deal we want. So much for protection!"
The statement released by a coalition of organisations, which includes the Migrant Rights Network and think tank the New Economics Foundation, said the group “rejects the notion that no guarantees can be given until the European Union offers the same guarantees to British citizens living in Europe”.
It added: “The UK voted to leave the EU, so the onus is on our Government to take the lead in resolving this issue, which stems directly from that vote.
“We know the vast majority of Britons support our call, whether they voted Leave or Remain in last year’s referendum, so if the Government takes action now it will help to unite the country.”
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said: "We have been clear that we want to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK and the only circumstances in which that wouldn't be possible is if British citizens' rights in the EU were not protected in return.
"As the PM said, she has told other leaders that we could reach a deal now, but some do not favour an agreement at this stage.
“It's an important priority for us and we'll continue to proactively engage with our European counterparts to resolve this as early as we can.”
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