Brexit: Theresa May prepares for fight with Brussels over EU citizens' rights

PM says there is a ‘clear’ difference between people who come to the UK before March 2019 and those who come after

Joe Watts
,Lizzy Buchan
Wednesday 31 January 2018 20:02 GMT
Demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament hold a protest lobbying MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit
Demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament hold a protest lobbying MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit (AFP)

Theresa May has signalled she is preparing for a fight with Brussels over its demands that EU citizens should be able to secure full residence rights in the UK during the Brexit transition period.

Ms May said she is “clear” that there should be a difference in the rights afforded to people who arrived in the UK before the expected March 2019 Brexit date and those who come afterwards.

She made her comments after the EU set out its demands for the two-year transition period, including the one which would increase the number of EU citizens who can win UK residency rights after Britain officially quits the bloc.

But a group representing EU citizens immediately warned that her stance would bring “utter chaos” and inflict “widespread discrimination” in their search for jobs and homes.

​MPs on the Conservative Party’s right wing are even more annoyed by the proposal, because they believed the matter had been settled in the “withdrawal” phase of Brexit talks, which reached agreement at the end of 2017.

Addressing the growing dispute while travelling to China on a trade visit, Ms May said: “I’m clear there’s a difference between those people who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is no longer a member of the EU.”

She explained: “When we agreed the citizens’ rights deal in December, we did so on the basis that people who had come to the UK when we were a member of the EU had set up certain expectations, they made a life choice and … it was right that we have made an agreement that ensured they could continue their life in the way they had wanted to.

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“Now for those who come after March 2019 that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU.”

Conservative MPs who want a clean break from the EU have been demanding Ms May take a tougher line on Brexit, while Labour has been questioning whether she can achieve a deal at all.

With her leadership once again under pressure as negotiations heat up, Ms May insisted that people should not underestimate her ability to secure an agreement for the transition.

She said: “I kept reading before the December deal was done that we weren’t going to be able to do a deal, that we weren’t going to manage to do a deal, that we weren’t setting the right things out and so forth.

“We did that deal. We did an agreement which when everybody looked at it, business said this gives us more certainty, citizens saw that their rights were being protected.”

She dismissed speculation that she had been forced to cancel a speech setting out her terms for the transition and Brexit end state because of a lack of consensus over key areas within her Cabinet.

Labour MP Peter Kyle, a supporter of Open Britain campaign for a soft Brexit, said the comments would simply increase uncertainty over Brexit for thousands of people living in the UK.

He said: “The Government says it values EU citizens who want to live in the UK, then tells them they’re not wanted. The Government tells businesses they want stability and continuity, then tells them their ability to recruit the staff they need will be hampered.

“Our economy must not be sacrificed on the altar of an extreme and counter-productive attitude towards immigration. If that’s what Brexit means, then everyone is entitled to keep an open mind about whether it’s the right path for the country.”

Nicolas Hatton, the founder of the3million group which represents EU citizens, warned that Mrs May’s policy would bring “utter chaos”.

“People won’t have the paperwork to prove they arrived in this country before March 2019,” he said.

“That means there will be widespread discrimination because employers and landlords will want to know whether that person can stay and will ask for that paperwork.”

However, Eurosceptic Conservative Nigel Evans welcomed the move as a ”red line” in the talks amid concern from some MPs that Ms May is preparing to deliver Brexit in name only.

He told The Independent: “I think this should be a wake-up call to [the European Commission’s chief negotiator] Michel Barnier and others that they cannot push us around.

“I believe that this clarity will not only be welcome to MPs who are supportive of the referendum result, it will also be welcomed by millions of people across the country who voted for Brexit.”

It is not the backdrop the Prime Minister would have wanted for her trip to China on which she is seeking to present an image of Britain’s bright and prosperous trading future after Brexit.

She travels to Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai seeking to increase trade with China and ultimately boost her chances of securing an all-important trade deal that Brexiteers believe will help make up for lost business from Europe.

British exports are up 60 per cent since 2010 and China is expected to be one of the UK’s biggest foreign investors by 2020.

Ms May has already announced some £550m worth of deals in the education sector, with more expected on her three-day visit.

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