Angela Merkel gave a cautious response to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal to protect EU citizens’ rights after Brexit, one of the most sensitive issues in the Brexit divorce talks.
“It’s a good start,” the German chancellor said as she left the European Council headquarters late Thursday evening (22 June), the first day of the two-day summit.
May proposed a deal to the 27 EU leaders over dinner that addressed the legal status of the more than three million citizens from EU countries who currently live in the UK. The EU has demanded the issue be cleared up early on in Brexit talks.
May’s offer would give EU citizens who have been in the UK for at least five years the same rights to residency, healthcare and benefits as British citizens. Those citizens could keep their rights for life.
May wants to negotiate a cutoff date specifying when EU citizens will need to secure that residency status, and has suggested it be at the latest March 2019.
She also offered a grace period to give EU citizens time to arrange their legal status in the UK. The length of that period will be decided in negotiations but May has suggested a maximum of two years.
The UK government was reported to have boasted that its offer was generous before today’s summit.
“There are a lot of questions open,” Merkel said, naming the financial bill that the EU plans to serve the UK before it leaves and the country’s relationship with Ireland as two areas where talks will be tough.
David Davis, the UK Brexit negotiator, implied this week that the citizens’ rights issue could be quickly agreed and set aside.
“I’m happy to report there is much common ground,” he said when Brexit talks officially started on Monday (19 June).
Leaders from the other 27 EU countries were more cautious today. They instructed Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, to go “line by line” through the British proposal and compare it to his own to judge how the two deals measure up.
Merkel kept her comments on May’s offer short. What is more important is the remaining EU countries, she said.
“We’re determined to keep the unity of the 27 like it has been until now,” she said.
If any of the leaders were happy with May’s proposal, they wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of saying it to her face.
None of the leaders reacted when May delivered her offer.
They waited until she left the room after dinner and then discussed the proposal, but only briefly. A senior EU source said the leaders did not talk about which courts would be responsible for ruling on potential residency disputes—an issue that is expected to come up later in the talks because the two sides disagree. The UK does not want EU courts involved in those cases.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern agreed with Merkel’s wait-and-see approach.
“It’s a first good step, which we appreciate, but there are a lot of details left open,” he told reporters after the meeting wrapped up. There are many EU citizens living in the UK and they have a lot of questions that need answering, he added.
Kern shattered May’s hopes of quickly negotiating an exit deal and moving on to thrash out details of a post-Brexit trade agreement.
“It’s a long, long way for negotiations,” Kern said. Then he got in one more punch.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the UK over their own position,” he said.
Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said there wasn’t much to evaluate yet in May’s offer until she details the offer in full next Monday (26 June).
“These people participate (in) the British economy,” he said. “They should get more information.”