The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, has criticised the British government over its proposals for EU citizens.
In an article co-written by fellow members of the European Parliament, he described the UK’s offer as a “damp squib”. Verhofstadt implied that EU citizens would be treated “less favourably than they are at present” under the proposals.
But the government has rebuffed this criticism, calling it an “unhelpful distortion of an offer that several member states have already said is the basis of a good deal”. What’s more, it claimed that Verhofstadt’s article “includes a number of inaccuracies”.
So what’s really being offered, and how does it compare to the EU’s own proposals?
The UK and EU proposals
But there are also some big differences. Most fundamental among them is a dispute about the legal framework of the deal.
The starting point for the EU’s proposals is EU law. Therefore, it says the deal for EU citizens living in the UK should “safeguard the status and rights derived from Union law”. In contrast, the UK proposals will “create new rights in UK law”.
This dispute does not necessarily change the reality of what is being offered on a practical basis, but it sets the negotiation off on a difficult footing with the two sides working to a different set of rules.
This leads to the next big difference: who enforces the deal? The EU says that the Court of Justice of the European Union should have jurisdiction over enforcement of the citizens’ rights agreement.
But UK proposals say the court “will not have jurisdiction in the UK”. That means EU citizens in the UK would not be able to take up any grievances they have about the deal with the EU court. Instead, they would need to go to court in the UK.
We can’t be sure exactly what difference this might make to any future court decisions, but the concerns on both sides revolve mainly around legal supremacy and the potential for political influence.
In his article, Mr Verhofstadt argues that the European court should be used because British courts “apply the laws adopted by British politicians”. In other words, it would give the UK too much influence over the way the agreement is enforced.
But critics say the European court is less independent because its “fundamental raison d’être is to uphold the EU Treaties”. They say it engages in “judicial activism” on behalf of the European Commission.
Verhofstadt criticises the government for “proposing that Europeans obtain the status of ‘third-country nationals’ in the UK, with fewer rights than British citizens are offered throughout the EU”.
Again, the government disputes this accusation, but confirmed that it does intend to create a new immigration status.
The phrase “third-country nationals” which Verhofstadt quotes is not actually used in the government’s proposal document. Instead, it refers to individuals being granted “settled status”.
EU citizens will be granted this status if they have been resident in the UK for five continuous years, and since before a specified date. People with settled status will be able to live and work in the UK, access public funds and services and do anything else that’s legal under UK law. They will also be able to apply for full British citizenship.
But Mr Verhofstadt says this amounts to fewer rights than are being offered to British citizens living in the EU.
Similar concerns have been echoed by campaign groups like the3million, which claims: “The most noticeable omission in this proposal is that as regards how the UK will seek to protect the rights of UK citizens in the EU.”
However, the government explicitly states in its proposals that it expects the EU to “offer reciprocal treatment for UK nationals resident in its member states” with their rights “similarly protected”.
It goes on: “Firstly, UK nationals in the EU must be able to attain a right equivalent to settled status in the country in which they reside. Secondly, they must be able to continue to access benefits and services across the member states akin to the way in which they do now.”
So it’s true that the government document does not literally repeat all the same proposals for UK nationals in the EU, but it strongly implies that the same things should apply.
What’s certainly true is that, under UK proposals, people with settled status would have fewer rights than what is being proposed by the EU. Crucially, the EU says people who have lived in the UK for at least five years should have a lifelong right to permanent residence.
The UK, on the other hand, says that someone’s settled status could be lost if a person is absent from the UK for more than two years, “unless they have strong ties here”. (That only applies to people with settled status, though – if you have obtained full citizenship then you would have the same full rights as any other UK-born citizen.)
Verhofstadt says it is “unclear what the status of ‘post-Brexit’ babies would be,” under the UK offer. The government disputes this, saying it is covered in its offer.
If people with “settled status” in the UK have a baby it will automatically acquire British citizenship. This is in line with existing citizenship laws. The child will also be eligible to apply for “settled status”.
The only ambiguity in the UK proposals seems to concern EU resident parents who have not yet met the five-year residency requirement for “settled status”. For them – if they are on the intermediate status known as “leave to remain” – then the parents will need to apply for their child to be granted the same status.
Under the UK’s proposals, Verhofstadt claims that EU citizens who live in the UK will “lose their right to vote in local elections”.
At the moment, EU citizens are entitled to vote in all local and devolved elections. But they cannot vote in General Elections or national referendums (with the exceptions of citizens of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta) .
The government proposals for EU citizens with settled status does not actually mention elections or voting rights at all. It’s true that Verhofstadt’s concerns are not explicitly ruled out, but it seems he is jumping to conclusions.
The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) now tell us that they do not plan to take away local election voting rights for settled status EU citizens. But this has not been laid out in the official documents.
Verhofstadt says: “Family members will be subject to minimum income requirements.”
There’s an element of truth in this, but it is misleadingly put. And, likewise, the UK proposals about family members are spelled out confusingly.
Crucially, however, it seems that minimum income requirements would only kick in for future spouses and civil partners.
Current family members are eligible to apply to stay in the UK – either under the “settled status,” or under a intermediate “leave to remain” category. Either way, there are no income requirements.
However, after Brexit, any future family members seeking to join their “settled status” relatives in the UK will be subject to all the normal immigration rules that already apply to other countries. That includes proof of minimum combined income.
Verhofstadt’s claim is therefore not completely incorrect, but does not tell the full story.