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Brussels gives cold shoulder to May’s proposals for EU citizens

AFP file photo
5 min

French President Emmanuel Macron said at the end of the EU summit in Brussels on Friday that proposals from UK Prime Minister Theresa May on preserving the rights of EU citizens after Brexit were, "not a breakthrough, to put it conservatively."


"It became clear during the discussion last night that we have a long path ahead of us. And the 27 (other EU countries), especially Germany and France, will be well prepared, we will not allow ourselves to be divided," the centrist president said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel firmly agreed with Macron’s statement.

The two leaders also made it clear at a joint press conference that they would not pursue changes to the EU's Lisbon Treaty unless reform of the bloc demanded it, saying much could be achieved short of treaty change.

On Thursday, May told the press that she had promised to let EU citizens stay after Brexit as she met skeptical European leaders for the first time since her disastrous election on June 8 where she lost her parliamentary majority. A year after the shock referendum vote to leave the EU, May has still provided no concrete roadmap for EU’s citizens living in the UK or for the overall divorce from the bloc.

Over dinner Thursday with her 27 EU counterparts, May said EU citizens in the UK would have rights to healthcare, education, welfare and pensions equivalent to British nationals.

May attacked at home and abroad

The offer outlined by the beleaguered May at an EU summit was also condemned by London’s powerful Mayor Sadiq Khan as woefully insufficient.

"The PM's plan doesn't come close to fully guaranteeing the rights of the 3 million EU nationals living in the UK," Khan tweeted, though British officials said further details would follow on Monday.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also voiced his disquiet, saying it was the bare "minimum" that May should be offering. Speaking in Paris, Gabriel insisted that May's offer was something that should be taken for granted.

"The mere fact that you won't be thrown out is not a convincing breakthrough, as far as I'm concerned," he said scathingly.

EU President Donald Tusk told a news conference that his first impression of the UK offer was that it fell below expectations and that it actually "risks worsening the situation of our citizens in the UK".

More questions…

Merkel diplomatically said late Thursday that May's plan was "a good start. But of course there are still many, many other questions".

May, however defended the proposal saying it was "a fair and serious offer" that brought certainty to those affected.

She added that she expected any offer by Britain to be matched by the EU for the 1.2 million Britons living on the continent.

She also refused to let the EU's top court oversee the process and any resulting disputes.

'Bargaining chips'

Frenchman Nicolas Hatton, head of the EU citizen lobby group "the3million", noted it had taken the government almost exactly 12 months to unveil the offer after Britain's Brexit referendum on June 23 last year.

"Twelve months for that! It's pathetic that the UK government is playing with our lives in the most backward proposal for EU citizens we could have imagined," he said.

Some European Union citizens living in the UK fear they will be prey to the whims of British lawmakers and that they will no longer be protected by the European Court of Justice.

"There's nothing special in her offer," Spanish nurse Joan Pons, one of the tens of thousands of EU nationals working for the UK’s beloved National Health Service (NHS), said.

"It's not a 'generous' offer. It's rather ridiculous," the nurse told AFP.

EU nationals must be able to continue living in Britain on the same terms as British citizens, Hatton said, and any arrangements must be ring-fenced to protect their rights in case Brexit negotiations fall apart.

Among other unresolved questions is the fate of partners of EU nationals who come from outside Europe. Another is what will happen to their children.

Can May pull it off?

Leaders said they looked forward to seeing the more technical details when Britain publishes a formal paper on the issue on Monday.

"We don't want to buy a pig in a poke," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, using an old expression for agreeing to buy something without inspecting it beforehand.
"The rights of European citizens should be guaranteed in the long term."

In the year since the Brexit referendum, British employers have been increasingly sounding the alarm about the impact on their businesses.

Figures in January showed a dive of 90 percent since the referendum in the numbers of EU nurses applying to work in the NHS.

The opposition Labour party, which is riding high after May suffered a disastrous general election two weeks ago, said her offer was "too little, too late".


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