The EU has every right to reject this shabby offer

01 Sep 2017
The issue of the rights of EU citizens is extremely important but the government’s inability to find an agreement with the EU could scupper the entire negotiations.

In any dramatic change in international relationships, outside of war, all parties are keen to ensure their citizens come to no harm. It is also partly a question of mutual goodwill. Despite the rantings of some of the wilder Tory MPs, we are not at war with the EU.

The EU negotiators have made it clear that this issue, along with the ‘divorce bill’ and the status of the Irish border, must be settled in the autumn before any significant negotiations can begin on transition arrangements and the shape of any future UK, EU trade arrangements.

But the omens so far are not good. The EU offered a comprehensive reciprocal deal on EU and UK citizens’ rights as long ago as the end of April.  The government and much of the media pretended no such mutually-beneficial deal had been tabled. Instead, the cry went up ‘what about UK citizens in Europe?’. To repeat, this is a reciprocal deal.

Instead, the UK government eventually tabled a counter-offer at the end of June, which removes certain rights from both EU and UK citizens and imposes a new bureaucratic procedure and ‘settled status’. The government claimed it was a ‘big, generous offer’. It was nothing of the sort.

EU citizens will have to apply for ‘settled status’ even if they have recently completed the 85-page forms to regularise their status. Others already here at the time of Brexit day, which may or may not be March 29 2019, but who have not been here for five years will lose rights conferred under current Freedom of Movement rules. They will have to apply when 5 years are up. There is no clarity on what happens if that period is broken by time overseas. All EU citizens will lose the current right to bring family members here and will be subject to the onerous ‘minimum income regulation’, aspects of which have been found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Theresa May has created a further difficulty with her insistence that the European Court of Justice can have no jurisdiction in the UK. Unlike most European countries, the UK has no written Constitution, so no parliament can bind a future parliament to a course of action, or international agreement. Yet the EU requires some form of external guarantor for any eventual agreement on citizens’ rights.

If government obstinacy, inspired by a zombie Prime Minister continues to reject the ECJ then some other international body will be required to adjudicate in inevitable disputes. It will still be necessary to share jurisdiction to reach an agreement.

All of this matters. The basic rights of literally millions of UK and EU citizens are in doubt, touching on vital areas such as where they can live or work, and their right to a family life. The government risks alienating the EU before other substantive negotiations have even begun. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit mess, simple geography means we will still be closely bound to our nearest neighbours for all time.

We should be looking to equalise the rights of UK and EU citizens at their high point, not the bare minimum. We ought to be striving for greater fairness as between UK, EU and non-EU citizens. Above all, this government should realise that negotiating with itself is unacceptable. The rights and prosperity of everyone in this country are at stake.

* Originally published on Times Red Box.

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