UK’s May sets up EU row over post-Brexit citizens’ rights

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (L) speaks to Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on February 1, 2018. Hounded by Brexit rows at home, May met President Xi on February 1 to forge deeper trade ties after Britain leaves the EU. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / WU HONG

European Union citizens arriving in Britain during its post-Brexit transition period should not be afforded the same rights as those who arrived earlier, Prime Minister Theresa May said Thursday.

The embattled leader appears set for a clash with EU negotiators after telling reporters on a trip to China that “there is a difference between those who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is leaving”.

She added that the status of such EU citizens would be “a matter for negotiation” when Britain meets with EU officials again in March to set the terms of the transition period, which is expected to last around two years after Britain officially leaves in March 2019.

Brussels on Monday laid down its red lines for a “status quo transition without institutional representation, lasting… to 31 December 2020”.

That would mean the continuation of free movement and citizens’ rights for those settling in Britain during the transition, an arrangement that would cause anger among pro-Brexit ministers and MPs within May’s Conservative Party.

Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) minister Robin Walker on Thursday insisted that Britain would not accept such an agreement.

“During the EU implementation period, EU citizens should be able to continue to visit, live and work in the UK as they do now,” he told MPs in the House of Commons.

“The citizens’ rights agreement reached in December does give certainty about the rights of EU citizens already here going forward but this agreement does not cover those who are arriving after we leave the EU,” he added.

‘Not negotiable’
Downing Street would not reveal what rights were up for negotiation, but warned there would “be distance between different negotiation positions” at the start of talks.

This was further highlighted by Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, who responded to May by saying: “Citizens’ rights during the transition is not negotiable.

“We will not accept that there are two sets of rights for EU citizens,” he said.

Britain and the EU negotiated an agreement before Christmas that safeguards the rights of EU citizens who arrive in Britain before it leaves the bloc next year, giving reciprocal protections for British nationals living in the EU.

Pro-Brexit ministers and influential MPs have piled pressure on May to adopt a tougher stance as her government prepares to go into key negotiations to set the terms of a transition deal and the future relationship.

Backbench Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the eurosceptic European Research Group, has said that an acceptance of EU rules without representation would make Britain a “vassal state” during the transition period.

But taking a harder stance would cause further divisions within her cabinet, with finance minister Philip Hammond earlier this week calling for only “very modest changes” to the current relationship.

The agreement struck before Christmas protects EU citizens arriving before March 29, 2019.

Those who have lived continuously in Britain for five years will be able to apply for settled status, while others will be able to remain in order to build-up five years’ continuous residence.

Succesful applicants will be afforded equal rights on healthcare, education, benefits and pensions.

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