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EU Parliament: UK citizens' rights offer is a 'damp squib'

AFP archive | European Commission Brexit negotiating chief Michel Barnier.

The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator has threatened to block an offer by the UK government on the status of EU citizens after Britain leaves.

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He used a British idiom to castigate the proposed offer – dismissing it as a "damp squib". (A "squib" is essentially a firecracker that burns instead of exploding.)

"The European Parliament will reserve its right to reject any agreement that treats EU citizens less favourably than they are at present," Verhofstadt wrote in a letter to the Guardian, also signed by the leaders of the main centre-right and centre-left blocs in Strasbourg.

The EU legislature’s group on Brexit negotiations has made a similarly harsh statement against the same British proposals.

"The UK does not respect the principles of reciprocity, symmetry and non-discrimination," said the committee’s letter on Monday to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. While couched in diplomatic politesse, this is an unprecedented move – an EU organisation is effectively saying for the first time that Britain proposes to discriminate against EU citizens.

The group also said that thanks to the UK proposals presented on June 26, EU citizens in Britain would experience "nothing less than relegation to second-class status".

The issue of citizens' rights in each other's nations is the first topic on which both sides must come to an agreement. The UK wanted negotiations on a future trading relationship with the EU to happen at the same time. But – in a sign of Britain’s weak negotiating position against a united 27 countries remaining in the EU – London capitulated to Brussels on sequencing last month.

Barnier is the top point man for EU negotiations leading the negotiations for the EU as a whole, while the European Parliament still has a veto right on any deal.

After taking office soon after the Brexit referendum last year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May was soon under pressure to offer a guarantee of rights to reassure EU citizens in the country. Instead she took the advice of Sir Ivan Rogers, the then UK Permanent Representative to the EU, to use the rights of those citizens as a bargaining chip in negotiations. That did not win May goodwill in Brussels and Strasbourg.

In late June she put forward an offer on the rights of EU citizens in the UK. She described it as "generous". No EU leader or official adorned it with a similar adjective.

'Lower than third country nationals'

Verhofstadt’s letter said May’s proposals "would cast a dark cloud of vagueness and uncertainty over millions of Europeans" – granting EU citizens living in Britain fewer rights than those of UK citizens in the EU.

"The rights of EU citizens in the UK will be reduced to a level lower than third country nationals in the EU," said the European parliamentary committee’s letter to Barnier. "Above all," EU citizens in Britain would have "no life-long protection".

The offer also makes it "unclear what the status of post-Brexit babies would be", the committee’s statement continued.

According to the British offer, EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for five years would gain permanent residency rights.

However – as with non-EU immigrants currently – they would no longer be allowed to vote in local elections in the UK. They would also have to get through Britain’s comparatively high minimum salary requirements in order to bring any members of their family into the country.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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