Calling our bluff: time for the UK to honour its promises to EU-27 and UK citizens

For almost a year EU citizens in the UK – and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU – have been living with the uncertainty over their status created by the UK’s vote to Brexit.  Meanwhile, the UK government has been claiming for some months that the only thing standing in the way of resolving this uncertainty for EU citizens here was the EU-27’s refusal to agree reciprocal treatment for UK citizens. In December, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons:

“We want to give certainty and reassurance to people that this issue can be dealt with at a very early stage and then the people concerned can get on with their lives.”

In January, the Home Office wrote:

“The prime minister has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living here, and the only circumstances in which that would not be possible are if British citizens’ rights in other EU member states were not protected in return,”

In March, the Government’s Brexit White Paper stated:

“The UK remains ready to give people the certainty they want and reach a reciprocal deal with our European partners at the earliest opportunity. It is the right and fair thing to do.”

Well, if anyone was gullible enough to believe any of this, the events of the last few days should have disabused them.  The EU-27 has made its negotiating position clear. It wants to protect the rights of EU-27 citizens in the UK, and of UK citizens in the EU-27, on a complete, comprehensive, and reciprocal basis:

“Safeguarding the status and rights of the EU27 citizens and their families in the United Kingdom and of the citizens of the United Kingdom and their families in the EU27 Member States is the first priority for the negotiations because of the number of people directly affected and of the gravity of the consequences of the withdrawal for them. “The withdrawal agreement should provide the necessary comprehensive, effective, enforceable and non-discriminatory guarantees for those citizens’ rights.

The Agreement should safeguard the status and rights derived from Union law at the withdrawal date, including those the enjoyment of which will intervene at a later date (e.g. rights related to old age pensions) both for EU27 citizens residing (or having resided) and/or working (or having worked) in the United Kingdom and for United Kingdom citizens residing (or having resided) and/or working (or having worked) in one of the Member States of the EU27.”


In other words, the EU has proposed, in some detail, precisely what the UK claims it wanted: a reciprocal deal, guaranteeing full rights. So why is the UK government not immediately welcoming and endorsing the EU proposal – indeed, proclaiming it as a great victory for the UK’s approach to the negotiations?

The answer is, of course, that what has actually happened is that the EU-27 have called Theresa May’s bluff. The UK is simply neither ready nor willing to make good on the very clear promise made by Vote Leave and our current Foreign Secretary.

“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present”

The UK has indeed always been willing to grant EU-27 citizens permanent residence – although, as I wrote as long ago as August, the administrative difficulties of setting a cut-off date, a qualifying period and actually identifying who is eligible remain formidable. However, offering permanent residence in some form is not the same as guaranteeing that EU-27 citizens (and, of course, UK citizens elsewhere in the EU) won’t lose any of their rights – that is, that they will be treated “no less favourably than they are at present”.

As both David Allen Green (here) and Steve Peers (here) explain, those rights go far beyond residence and the right to work. They cover pensions, other benefits, access to healthcare, education and training and so on. Moreover – again, a point I raised shortly after the referendum – they cover the right to be joined by spouse and family. As I wrote then:

What about the Latvian who arrived here three years ago but whose husband and children stayed home, planning to join her when he finished his studies? At the moment, those rights aren’t in question. Similarly, what about the Briton and his Polish fiancé, planning next year’s wedding? Of course it is possible to draw rules that would allow in those deserving-sounding cases – but there will be almost equally deserving ones the other side of the line.

Preserving these rights was, of course, precisely what Vote Leave and our current Foreign Secretary promised:

“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”

Indeed, taken literally, this promise – and the EU-27 offer – would mean that post-Brexit EU nationals currently resident here would have more rights than either UK citizens (who don’t have the automatic right to be joined by a non-EEA spouse) or than they would have if we’d voted to Remain (when David Cameron’s now-forgotten renegotiation would have meant they’d have lost some rights to benefits).

Now, there is no obligation for the UK to sign up to every dot and comma of the EU-27s proposal – in particular, the provocative suggestion that the European Court of Justice should oversee any deal (although, given the shameful behaviour of the Home Office towards EU citizens since the referendum, the desire for some grown-up supervision is understandable).

But there is absolutely nothing to stop the UK from saying, today, that it is prepared to accept a comprehensive deal, as proposed by the EU-27, that would guarantee all rights – except, that is, the fact that the UK government is neither ready nor willing to make good on its promises. It has been hiding behind the EU-27’s supposed unwillingness to offer a reciprocal deal. It has now been put on the spot; the ball is in our court.

By Professor Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • peterb

    There is an election taking place so it is understandable that until that is finalised there will be no agreements with the EU Mr Portes. Amazing how you cannot see there must also be a deadline agreed on when EU migrants can be accepted on these full terms.

    It would appear the lefty liberal elite love your blog, but you really must get your understanding of the facts correct.
    I would stick to getting economics wrong you are far more suited to that with a fine track record.

    • horserider

      silly comment. Just concentrate on the actual content of what Mr Portes has kindly shared. If that’s too much for you, just shut up.

      • peterb

        when he is consistently wrong and is wrong about this he needs to be called out.

        • greybeard

          How is he wrong? He’s being criticised, but none of you actually point out any alleged errors.

  • stushurlock

    According to the German newspaper​ report of the dinner last week, the prime minister was expecting to wrap up the citizens rights deal at the EU summit in June. So, the current election campaign was not an obstacle as far as she was concerned. The EU27​ response was that the issue was far too complicated for that to happen. Most commentators think that the UK offer was based on EU citizens having the same protection after Brexit as 3rd nation citizens with rights of residence. Prof Portes’ piece describes the reality of what the EU27 have publicly stated their position is. That position is for ‘no change’ for EU citizens’ rights. A massive gap between those two positions.

    • Guy Jenkinson

      Correct. The gap is due to the UK side trying to backtrack on promises made during the referendum campaign, as explained in the article.

      • peterb

        Each case will be judged on its merits. And the point is the referendum campaign was not a campaign by an incoming government, it was much broader based and included opposition parties. Exactly the same with the £350m a week claim that it ‘COULD’ be used to fund the NHS. Could and would are completely different things. Portes is wrong in his assessment that the EU has called the UK’s bluff he is alloying his lefty politics to cloud his judgement

        • Tubby_Isaacs

          Come on, you must know that EU membership doesn’t cost £18bn a year. So it can’t be spent instead on the health service.

          See what the Vote Leave boss, Dominic Cummings, said.

  • LondonStatto

    This is nonsense. The UK offered to take this off the table last year, and the EU refused.

    • Tubby_Isaacs

      No they didn’t. The UK has never offered what the EU wants- ie continuation of what we have now.

    • greybeard

      What exactly did the UK government offer? It said it wanted it settled, but on what terms? Kept secret to protect our bargaining position, again?

      If they were the same as the EU has set out in the paper, the UK Government could have agreed them last week.

  • peterb

    I do believe Mr Portes should read this. One must say in conclusion Portes is wrong again.

    • Eldarion

      Well we don’t really know what either side offers, do we? We know that May would like a quick deal, but not what she’s actually offering. And that the EU warns it might be more complicated (well, let’s see, not so convinced by that argument).

      The leaks didn’t really change that much. If it were true that May wants to give them “third country status,” this would be massively worse than what the EU expects and thus very problematic. It once again, it’s just leaks and a very ambiguous off-cuff remark (that might even have been misrepresented), so hardly enough to build a case on that.

      On the other side, the Telegraph and other newspapers write that May wanted an early deal and the EU not as if that was a betrayal – we know that since months, nothing new there – and repeat the supposedly willingness of the British government to guarantee all rights to EU citizens in the country.

      While I would very much appreciate and welcome this stance, there’s simply no material evidence yet to prove May is ready to give that – and the EU certainly wants it.

      So we’re back at the beginning: We don’t really know who’s offering what (and I mean content-wise, not wishes regarding the timetable) and we’ll have to wait until the negotiations to know of positions are really so far apart.

      My tip is, if both really want what they say, an agreement on that topic will actually be quite easy.

      • stushurlock

        I thought that the EU27 position had been made clear and in writing. The UK position is the one that’s not so clear. The leaks focused on the timetable, not the content.

  • RcJ

    This garbled content is a complete contradiction and you know it Mr Portes Already stacking up the negative on the PM and favouring the EU with BS “why don’t she honour it” maybe it because of europhiles expecting PM to bow down to EU unreasonable demands and playing for time to create chaos each step of the way. Reciprocal is a two-way step both sides needs to agree. There are more EU nationals than UK nationals. But I guess you turn a blind eye whilst Juncker uses the EU citizens as bargaining chips to point score.

  • Samuele Marcora

    The way the government has responded to this EU proposal is very worrying

  • Louise Buchanan

    If all you naysayers would read Hansard you will see that Parliament voted TWICE not to grant EU citizens in UK a continuation of their rights. Their position remains the same and Portes is absolutely correct. Look it up.

  • I have lived in the Republic of Cyprus since 2004. Most of my friends and neighbours, both British and Cypriot, have one home in the UK and one home in Cyprus. They have always kept one leg in the UK because of continued Turkish aggression in Cyprus. I have worked throughout Europe and most of my UK colleagues have maintained their primary home in the UK, usually rented out. I believe that when the UK officially leaves the EU in 2019, most UK expats will return home. I think that Theresa May will not be under great pressure from UK expats to negotiate reciprocal citizenship with EU governments. Any decision to grant reciprocal citizenship rights will be based purely on the needs of British industry.

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