UK parliament calls for separate Brexit treaty on citizens’ rights, EU Commission says no

The British government should seek a separate Brexit agreement with the European Union to protect EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, according to an amendment to the government Brexit strategy passed by the House of Commons.

The residence and social security rights of people who moved across the Channel are currently bundled with other issues in the draft Brexit deal, which was voted down by parliament earlier in January.

British lawmakers agreed on February 27 that the UK government should approach the EU to separate these rights from the rest of the deal. This would end the uncertainty over the legal status of some 5 million people, and protect them from the risks of no deal.

The amendment was tabled by Alberto Costa, a Conservative MP of Italian origins. It was supported by over 150 MPs from all political parties, both from the Leave and Remain camps, and was approved unanimously on the nod, without a vote.

It is not the first time MPs call for the “ring-fencing” of citizens’ rights in the Brexit negotiations. Twice the parliamentary committee on exiting the European Union adopted reports including this demand. But this is the first time the full House gives a clear mandate to the government.

The UK has already reached separate agreements with Switzerland and the non-EU members of the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to protect the rights of residents regardless of the Brexit outcome.

“My amendment is not dealing in goods or services, backstop or borders, but people, living and breathing, skin and bone,” Alberto Costa said in parliament. “That such an amendment is needed is in itself a very sad state of affairs. The rights and freedoms of over 1.5 million United Kingdom citizens in the EU and over 3 million EU citizens in the UK should never have been used as a bargaining chip during the negotiations for our withdrawal from the EU. That such rights were placed on the table in the first place was wrong.”

At the start of Brexit talks, in May 2017, the European Commission proposed that EU nationals in the UK and British residents in the EU maintain existing rights. A few weeks later, the UK government came up with its own, more limiting, proposal. Not all current rights have survived the negotiation that followed. UK nationals, in particular, are bound to lose the right to move freely in the EU, and EU nationals will face restrictions when bringing some family members to the UK.

But the current deal provides more safeguards than the 28 different laws that would be enforced in each country in the event of no deal Brexit. The UK offered unilateral guarantees to EU citizens and most EU states are passing laws to protect the status of British residents. There is no solution, however, to transnational rights, such as healthcare when travelling or pensions’ aggregation, in a no deal scenario. Campaigners have long argued that an international treaty is the most effective way to protect these rights.

Nicolas Hatton, co-founder of campaigning group the3million praised Alberto Costa “for his political courage, putting citizens’ right ahead of his political career,” and the British parliament “for finally finding a majority to support our citizens’ rights.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May did not initially support the amendment and Costa was asked to resign from his role of parliamentary private secretary in the Scotland Office because government members are not supposed to table amendments to government motions. He resigned, even though later the government supported his amendment.

“I will continue to champion this issue in the weeks and months to come, and actually, no longer being a PPS gives me more freedom to push for those calls even more strongly,” Costa said in an interview with ITV.

Now, to reach a deal, the UK government should seek talks with Brussels and the European Council (which represents governments of EU countries) should change the negotiation mandate of the European Commission.

A spokesperson of the European Commission responded to the vote saying: “It’s not for the Commission to comment on amendments voted in the House of Commons where the debate is still ongoing, but what I can tell you more generally on citizens’ rights is that the Commission has consistently made clear that the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and UK nationals in the EU are our top priority. They should not pay the price for Brexit, and the Commission has called on member states to take a generous process to UK nationals that are already in their territory.”

Then she continued: “The best way to protect the rights of these 4.5 million people concerned is through the withdrawal agreement. We will not negotiate mini-deals because negotiating such mini-deal outside the withdrawal agreement would imply that the negotiations have failed.”

The UK parliament is expected to vote again on the withdrawal agreement on March 12. If the deal is not approved, there will be a vote on a no deal exit on March 13, and on a possible Brexit delay on March 14.

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.

This article was first published on February 27 and was updated on March 1 with the reaction of the European Commission.

Photo: Maciek Musialek © European Union, 2016 /  Source: EC – Audiovisual Service.

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