This article is part of our special report Brexit: Where to, Brefugees?.
Brexit negotiators will face “extraordinarily complex” talks over the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British expats in Europe, according to sources in Brussels.
Millions of citizens in the UK and the EU face uncertainty over their future given Britain’s decision to leave the EU in a referendum last June.
The UK and the remaining 27 EU member states are seeking a deal on citizens’ rights early on in the divorce talks. Over a million British citizens work in the EU while some three million EU citizens are in the UK.
Currently, these citizens enjoy the right to live, work and study in the EU; the free movement of citizens is hailed as one of the four freedoms of the EU.
But British Prime Minister Theresa May has interpreted the narrow victory for Leave as a mandate to take back control of British borders and introduce limits on immigration from the EU and elsewhere.
After EU leaders made clear that access to the single market was conditional on free movement, May said the UK would leave the single market hoping to secure access through a future free trade agreement.
There are fears that citizens could become bargaining chips in the negotiations if an agreement on their status isn’t reached quickly.
The EU wants “reciprocal” and legally “enforceable” guarantees for all EU citizens who find their rights to live, work and study in Britain, or in the EU, affected after a cut-off on the date of withdrawal.
But EU sources said those rights cannot be taken in isolation, opening up extraordinarily complex negotiations on other rules guaranteeing, for example, access to social security and health care and welfare payments, including marriage provisions and aggregate pensions built up in other EU countries.
EU citizens also benefit from the right to family reunification: this allows an EU citizen to bring a dependent from a third country – a grandmother, for example, – to live with him or her.
The Commission expects the UK to grant the right of return for those who have previously lived in the UK and for current and future spouses and dependants to join those already in the country.
Citizens’ rights would apply, ideally for life, and also to any children, according to EU sources. The exact cut-off date will be finalised during the negotiations.
EURACTIV understands that one EU red line relates to non-discrimination between EU citizens: the UK would not be able to offer one deal to, for example, French nationals while proffering a different one to Bulgarians.
European Parliament research found the total number of EU-27 nationals living in the UK grew from 1.34 million in 1990 to 2.98 million in 2015, of which 703,050 are Polish, 503,288 Irish and 322,220 German.
The UK’s EU-27 population is mostly aged between 25 and 34 and more likely to be involved in low-skilled work. With a benefits bill more than 40 times lower than their UK counterparts, EU-27 nationals contribute more to the UK economy than they cost it.
The number of UK citizens living in the EU grew from 661,505 in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2015. The majority (308,821) live in Spain, followed by Ireland.
UK citizens working in the EU tend to be employed in highly-skilled occupations, according to the report.
Theresa May attempted to strike a deal on on citizens’ rights in December last year but those efforts were stonewalled by the EU-27, led by the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
The EU-27 stuck to its hardline stance of no negotiations with Britain until it had triggered Article 50 – the legal procedure that would take the UK out of the EU.
In March, May formally invoked Article 50; a letter announcing the decision was hand delivered to European Council President Donald Tusk.
The letter kicks off an intense two-year period of negotiations, which are certain to be highly unpredictable and among the most complicated ever undertaken by the EU.
Among its six pages, May wrote, “We should always put our citizens first…and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.”
48 hours later, Tusk circulated the draft negotiating guidelines for the Brexit talks among EU-27 diplomats. The guidelines will be rubber-stamped at a special summit of the EU-27 on 29 April.
The former Polish premier set out a phased negotiation process: the terms of the divorce would need to be agreed in principle before the terms of the future relationship with the UK could be addressed.
The rights of EU citizens and the UK’s settlement bill are the two major parts of the first phase of the planned negotiations, expected to begin in June.
Until agreement on the bill and citizens is reached, there will be no progress on the future free trade agreement that May is pushing for.
The refusal to enter into parallel talks heaps yet more pressure on an already tight timeframe. Barnier has pinpointed an October 2018 deadline for finalising the Brexit deal, allowing a mere five months for national governments and the European Parliament to ratify the deal. Successfully doing so would lead to the UK exiting the EU in March 2019. If the deal is not finalised by the March deadline, the UK could crash out of the EU with no agreement.
EU chiefs have warned that “no deal” is the worst-case scenario for both the UK and the EU-27; it could lead to food shortages, queues at Dover, and uncertainty over the rights of citizens, they claim.
“Brexit will have important human, economic, social, judicial and political consequences,” Barnier said in March. “It is worth bearing in mind that a lack of agreement will have even more serious repercussions.”
“More than four million British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are confronted with total uncertainty about their rights and their future,” he added.
Free movement transition
There is growing acceptance in Brussels and London that a transitional Brexit deal will be required. Such an agreement would mean that the UK would continue to operate under EU law, according to Brexit negotiating guidelines.
Theresa May has signalled that during any transition period, the free movement of EU citizens to the UK would continue. New border systems and the trade deal could be put into place during this time.
The European Parliament is pushing for such an extension period to be limited to three years.
In Belgium, there was surge in UK citizens applying for Belgian citizenship after Brexit. More than 100 have been granted it in Brussels.
A British right-wing think tank, Migration Watch, has claimed that an extension of the EU’s Blue Card system to highly-skilled British workers could encourage them to work in the bloc.
Ironically the UK, which remains an EU member until Brexit, currently has an opt-out from the scheme. The European Commission is hoping to revive the unsuccessful scheme as part of their push to open up legal channels of migration to the bloc.
There have already been recent newspaper reports of EU citizens facing difficulties securing permanent residence in Britain since the referendum.
The lack of a national identity card scheme will likely hamper British efforts to control and enforce future immigration limits.
A report this month by the UK’s Office of National Statistics found that “EU migrants” make up 11% of Britain’s manufacturing workers.
EU workers from outside the UK tended to work longer hours than the workforce average, the report said.
Non-UK workers were more likely to be overqualified for the jobs they were doing, it added.
The British government has yet to explain how its post-Brexit immigration rules will work. Many of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign argued for an Australian-style points-based system.
The government has so far only said that the new rules will ensure “the brightest and best” continue to be attracted to the UK once EU free movement rules are ditched.
This week’s special report will focus on what Brexit means for jobs in the EU in the lead-up to Saturday’s special summit to finalise the draft negotiating guidelines.