British citizens living in the EU say they are frustrated by proposals put forward in a paper by Theresa May on Monday to guarantee their rights and are urging the government to do much more to protect those living and working in Europe.
“Apart from the fact that paper makes very few detailed mentions of UK citizens in Europe – even though we represent by far the largest national group of people who will be impacted by the citizens’ rights deal – the government strategy is clearly putting our future rights at risk,” said Jane Golding, chair of British in Europe, the largest coalition group of British citizens living and working in Europe.
“It insists on both reciprocity and on restricting some of the current rights of EU citizens living in the UK. That means that the EU may well respond with measures to restrict some of our current rights too. That would be the exact opposite to Theresa May’s stated intention to use reciprocity in order to protect those rights.”
The feeling among a number of UK citizens the group has spoken to is that more attention has been paid to the 3 million EU citizens in the UK than on the 1 million Britons living in one of the 27 EU countries.
Golding continued: “The UK government’s offer lacks clarity in comparison to the detailed EU offer published at the end of May. There is very little here about what Theresa May actually wants to achieve for us and how our rights should be protected, despite the UK government emphasising all along that they wanted to protect the rights of British citizens living in the EU.”
She said UK citizens living in the EU faced “the risk of being the sacrificial lambs of Brexit, while the government focuses instead on immigration arrangements for EU citizens already in the UK”.
The offer published by the UK this week is contingent on UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU being granted an equivalent status, and is dependent on an overall deal being agreed.
And while there is an expectation that the EU will offer reciprocal treatment for UK nationals resident in its member states, it is unclear exactly what the British government means by reciprocity in this case.
Maintaining the status quo for UK nationals would mean that Britons living in the EU27 would have more rights than EU nationals living in the UK. There are also questions over how the UK would get around the European Court of Justice, if it asked for new measures to to be encoded in EU law.
A reciprocal approach based on the immigration laws of each member state, on the other hand, would lead to a different suite of rights depending on the country. Such an arrangement would also be difficult for the UK to enforce, experts have suggested.
“This may be an opening gambit but at the moment, because this is an issue for the UK vis-a-vis EU citizens’ rights going forward, we lose family reunification rights – bringing over sick relatives, going back to the UK with non-UK, EU spouses – which we currently have in our countries of residence, just like EU citizens in the UK,” said British in Europe deputy chair Fiona Godfrey.
Both Godfrey and Golding attended a briefing with Brexit ministers on Monday when the proposals were released.
The UK proposal comes after the European Commission’s Brexit task force published an updated paper earlier this month outlining its position on how it would like to see the rights of EU27 citizens in Britain, as well as those of Britons residing elsewhere in the UK, guaranteed. The EU wants to protect and guarantee all existing rights for life.
Answering reporters’ questions about the UK’s proposals, a European Commission spokesperson said: “Every point and every line needs to be analysed. The commission is analysing the document. And we are doing this because here we are talking about the lives of 3 million EU citizens, and it’s not something to do á la légère.”
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted that the plan needed more ambition, clarity, and guarantees. Barnier is expected to present a more detailed assessment on 12 July once he has reviewed the documents more closely with his team.
Other British citizens living in the EU27 feel that there hasn’t been much coverage of the situation of UK nationals abroad in UK media, and that the views presented are often skewed.
Daniel Tetlow, co-founder of British in Germany, said: “The UK media is not yet giving much attention to the 1.2 million UK citizens living and working in Europe whom these proposals equally affect. Unfortunately also the media often don’t do their homework with the latest developments in the negotiations. For example last week when Theresa May made her announcement, a lot of British journalists were asking what the EU’s position was not knowing that the EU at the end of May had already made its position clear with a far more detailed proposal than the UK government gave yesterday. This of course causes people to misunderstand what’s really going on.”
The UK proposals would see EU citizens in the UK lose a number of their existing rights, including the guarantee to bring in family members in future.
The offer also suggests that new settled status could lapse if someone left Britain for more than two years. “The fact is you are somewhat held hostage in the UK,” a senior European government told BuzzFeed News, adding that the proposals could also create a two-tier system of EU nationals after Brexit.
The UK’s plan doesn’t provide clarity on a number of other issues, and has left UK citizens confused and anxious. Godfrey added: “On healthcare, despite Theresa May’s statement in the House of Commons that the UK would continue to provide healthcare cover in the EU, the language on this is vague – the UK ‘will seek to protect the healthcare arrangements’. The language on pensions is also muddling.”
The Home Office is expected to publish further details in due course. BuzzFeed News understands that, in future, a number of specific scenarios could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Despite both UK and EU officials having met groups representing Britons in the EU several times, the groups feel the British government hasn’t always incorporated their feedback in developing its stance.
“In our view, to suggest that any offer made by either side would be generous is simply wrong – all we want and EU citizens in the UK want is to keep the status quo and get on with our lives,” Golding said.
“Until there is [a] final deal, and that deal is ringfenced from the other issues so that whatever happens in the negotiations it will stand, we won’t be able to sleep at night and will still be bargaining chips.”