Insufficient and ambiguous: The PanEuropean opinion on the citizens’ rights agreement

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The Brexit deadlock was finally broken last Friday, when the EU agreed that ‘sufficient progress’ had been made on citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the divorce settlement. But has the deal on citizens’ rights provided enough clarity to the millions of UK and EU immigrants affected by it?

David Davis and Michel Barnier

EU citizens in the UK

The main takeaway for both sides was that they would keep their current rights: EU citizens who have lawfully lived in the UK for a minimum of five years will be granted ‘settled status.’  The UK government has said this will be a straightforward process and cost no more than a British passport (£72.50). They will retain access to tax credits, universal credit, healthcare, pensions, etc., and can be away from the UK for up to 5 years and still retain this status. Children born in the UK to parents from an EU country will automatically become British citizens. Irish citizens will not have their rights affected by Brexit and will be able to work and travel in the UK without hindrance.

UK citizens in the EU

Likewise, UK nationals that are legally living in one of the 27 member states will be allowed to stay (though some countries will require an application process to secure this). If they have been living in the country for five years they will be entitled to ‘permanent residence’ or the chance to apply for it. Again, they can be away from the host country for 5 years and still retain permanent residence. If they have a pension, it will increase every year just as it would in the UK.

UK nationals will remain eligible for free healthcare in the EU under a continuation of the EHIC scheme, and if working in several European countries, they will maintain the right to work in all of them.

In addition, close family members (spouse/direct ascendants/direct descendants) will be able to join them if their rights are protected under the withdrawal agreement. Children of British nationals are also protected under the withdrawal agreement if the parents are protected or nationals of the host country.

What’s been left out

For those that have no desire to move and meet the requirements for settled status, this agreement is probably satisfactory.

But it is likely that the EU will adopt a constitutive system – meaning that British immigrants will have to apply for a new status (as EU citizens will be expected to do in the UK).

This process is unlikely to be uniform and each country will have slightly different requirements. Individuals will be asked to provide comprehensive documentation to prove they have lived in their respective host country for 5 years, and this may not be easy to find. Besides, bureaucracies can make mistakes, as the UK home office has proved.

Theresa May has made no illusions: the British PM seeks to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented people living in Britain illegally. We have already witnessed the consequences of this draconian policy on European citizens who have lived lawfully in the UK for over 15 years.

‘What will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit?’

The fact that the continuation of free movement was not even discussed is a worrying sign. It may well come up during the next phase of negotiations, but there are no guarantees, thus it is imperative we pressure both British and European parliaments to make sure this issue is not sidelined. Freedom of movement is vital, whether we are officially part of the European Union or not. Associative European citizenship must be made available to those who either wish for or need it.

Furthermore, there are a number of grey areas within the agreement: what will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit? After the UK has regained control of its laws, what safeguards are in place to protect EU citizens?

These questions will be an afterthought in the second round of negotiations, which will focus primarily on the future trading relationship between the two parties. Given that the UK and the EU already have differing interpretations of what that relationship should look like, it is unlikely that we will see further clarification on citizens’ rights in the foreseeable future.

Essentially, we feel that European and British nationals have been largely ignored. Though there have been some assurances made by European leaders, it seems citizens’ rights are more of a hindrance to the UK and the EU to negotiating more important aspects of the deal.