BRUSSELS: EU leaders warned on Friday Britain’s plans to protect the rights of European citizens post-Brexit risked leaving them worse off, after Prime Minister Theresa May gave what she insisted was a “fair” offer.
“My first impression is the UK offer is below our expectations and this risks worsening the situation of our citizens in the UK,” EU President Donald Tusk told a news conference after the second day of a Brussels summit.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters that May’s offer was a “first step but this step is not sufficient.”
The fate of around three million European citizens living in Britain after Brexit is one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the 28-member bloc, which began on Monday.
Almost exactly one year after Britain voted to leave in the June 23 referendum, May promised that nobody would be forced to leave after Brexit, offering permanent rights over healthcare, education, welfare and pensions to Europeans who arrive before a cut-off date.
But she declined to say when that date would fall, offering only a window between March 29, 2017, when Britain triggered the Brexit process, and its expected departure two years later.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the proposal outlined by May over an EU leaders’ dinner on Thursday was “particularly vague”.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, speaking in Paris, said the offer was “the minimum”, adding “this is actually 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.
May however defended the proposal.
“I remain of the view that this is a fair and serious offer,” she told a news conference after the summit.
“What we’re saying is that those citizens from EU countries who have come to the United Kingdom, who have made their lives and their homes in the UK, will be able to stay and we will guarantee their rights in the United Kingdom,” she told a news conference after the summit.
“I think that’s a very serious offer,” she added. “There are some differences between that and the proposal the European Commission put out and the matter will now go into the negotiations.”
Leaders said they looked forward to seeing the more technical details when Britain publishes a formal paper on the issue on Monday.
“The rights of European citizens should be guaranteed in the long term.”
May has already set up a clash with Brussels by refusing to allow the European Court of Justice to arbitrate any disputes over citizens’ rights in Britain.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, said late on Thursday that May’s plan was “a good start. But of course there are still many, many other questions”.
May had previously refused to guarantee the rights of Europeans until the futures of one million British expatriates living in the rest of the EU were also secured, and she said her proposal depended on a reciprocal deal.
But it was also probably intended as an olive branch as she struggles to maintain her authority after losing her parliamentary majority in a snap election two weeks ago, leaving her Conservative party struggling to form a stable government and throwing her entire Brexit strategy into doubt.
May called the election to secure a mandate for pulling Britain out of the EU’s single market in order to cut immigration — a key issue in the Brexit vote — but some of her ministers are now warning that jobs and the economy must be the priority.
Juncker was asked if he knew what form of Brexit the government in London was now seeking, to which he replied: “No.”
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said of the citizens offer: “It’s a good first proposal, which I appreciate, but it’s clear that we have to invest much more work.”
May’s proposal drew a derisory response at home, with a campaign group for EU nationals in Britain, called “the3million”, declaring it “pathetic”.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the opposition Labour party, said it “does not come close to fully guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals living in the UK”.
“It is unacceptable for the prime minister to be treating EU citizens living here and contributing to our economy and society as bargaining chips,” he said. — AFP