The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and MEPs are understood to be concerned by reports that the British government wants 29 March, when it officially notifies the EU of its intention to leave, to be the “cut-off date” for the free movement of people.
The issue was discussed at a meeting between Barnier and senior MEPs on Monday night. A five-page resolution detailing the European parliament’s red lines, which will be voted on next Wednesday, was subsequently amended specifically to rule out any “degradation” of the rights of EU nationals arriving in the UK over the next two years.
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, will deliver a letter triggering article 50 talks at 12.30pm on Wednesday, after which the clock is ticking on the two years of talks allowed under the treaty of Lisbon.
It has been repeatedly reported that the British government believes that 29 March 2017 is the appropriate date after which EU nationals moving to the UK would have rights different from those already in the country, although government officials say publicly that that is a matter for the negotiations.
Government sources have briefed that a cut-off date at the end of the two years of talks would open the UK to a rush of EU citizens seeking to enter the country. The European parliament’s resolution will nevertheless insist on “equity, reciprocity, symmetry and non-discrimination” for all EU nationals as long as Britain remains a member state.
The leader of the socialist bloc in the European parliament, Gianni Pittella, declined to comment on the detail of the European parliament’s resolution, but confirmed that MEPs would not accept discrimination between EU citizens.
He said: “We have heard that Theresa May is considering a cut-off date as the notification date. We completely disagree on this and we believe that the British citizens and those from the other 27 states are EU citizens until the day of the divorce. During this period the UK is a member state with full rights and obligations.
“It cannot be right that someone signing a work contract in the UK on Tuesday has more rights than someone signing a contract on Thursday.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief Brexit representative, said: “Any unilateral decision to curtail the rights of EU citizens in the UK, while the UK remains a member of the EU, would be contrary to EU law and we would oppose such a move vigorously. This would not be the right way to start negotiations.”
In the UK, a senior Whitehall source told the Guardian that the government viewed a deal on citizens rights as a “priority” - but that a cut-off date could not be decided until negotiations began.
In a further sign that the chamber will prove a major thorn in the British prime minister’s side, the Guardian has learned that MEPs will also insist in their resolution that a trade deal cannot be sealed within two years but only after the UK leaves, echoing the position of the European commission.
It will demand that the European court of justice “should be the competent authority for the interpretation and enforcement of the withdrawal agreement”.
And while MEPs will say that Britain should be allowed to change its mind about leaving the EU during the two years of talks, they will insist that this must be strictly on terms decreed by the remaining 27 EU member states. MEPs want to ensure that revocation of the triggering of article 50 will not be used by the UK simply to buy more negotiating time once the two years of talks laid down in the treaty of Lisbon are done.
The parliament will also demand that the UK’s multibillion pound financial liabilities, including commitments to spend on projects after 2019, should be paid in full by the Treasury.
Talking at a press conference, Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right European People’s party – the largest group in the parliament – said Brexit would be “very costly” for the UK.
He declined to speculate on the size of Britain’s divorce bill but said the British government needed to live up to the spending commitments in the EU’s budget.
He also told reporters that he did not believe a trade deal would be negotiated within the next two years and that the EU’s priority would be European businesses and not the City of London. The consequences of Brexit, he said, would affect the daily lives of millions of British citizens.
“I regret it very much”, he said. “ I don’t like it. But that’s the outcome of the Brexit referendum”.
Senior figures in the European parliament have decided to issue further resolutions at key pinch-points in the talks, to strengthen Barnier’s hand as he sits down with David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the EU.
The developments lay bare the difficulties that will face Davis when he finally begins negotiations with Barnier in mid-May. The European parliament has the right to veto any deal between the EU and the UK when talks come to a close in 2019, and the MEPs’ opening diktat and its subsequent resolutions, while non-binding, will inevitably set the parameters for the negotiations.
A senior EU source said: “The parliament will be tough but fair and seek to prioritise the rights of the citizens it represents.”
Pittella added: “We will not allow Theresa May to deliver a hard Brexit for EU citizens. If we don’t insist on the rights of workers in the UK, then I am afraid the UK’s health service will collapse, given the number of EU nationals who are working as nurses. So there is a common interest here.”
Author: Daniel Boffey