Article 50 bill: No good reason for government to fight EU nationals amendment
Government wants to fight the amendment protecting the rights of EU nationals. But their arguments for doing so just don’t hold up.
Last night the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment on the Article 50 bill to protect the rights of EU and EEA nationals resident in the UK. The amendment passed by a majority of 102 with 7 Tory peers joining Labour and Lib Dem peers in support of it. You can see a breakdown of how peers voted at parliament.uk.
This is the first bit of welcome news since the Article 50 bill was first brought. But it’s not yet over. Debate on other amendments to the bill by the House of Lords continues next week. The bill will then go back to the House of Commons to debate on amendments passed by the House of Lords.
After the vote, the government said that it was “disappointed” by the result. The BBC quotes a spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU as saying “the bill has a straightforward purpose – to enact the referendum result and allow the government to get on with the negotiations.” And the Guardian reports a government source saying that it would “seek to overturn this in the House of Commons.”
The government’s case for not accepting the amendment
The government argues that it wants to keep the bill simple and that any amendments on the rights of EU nationals would risk the position of Brits living in other EU countries. The government also maintains that it has always said that it wants to guarantee the rights of EU nationals as early as possible in negotiations.
Home secretary Amber Rudd sent a letter to peers ahead of the vote in the hopes of dissuading them from voting for the amendment. She reiterated the government’s arguments. She also added that Parliament will have an opportunity to vote on this issue in future through a separate immigration bill. And that “nothing will change for any EU citizen, whether already resident in the UK or moving from the EU, without Parliament’s approval.” Rudd sent a similar letter to Tory MPs ahead of the debate on a similar amendment in the House of Commons.
Why the government’s case falls flat
This point about a separate immigration bill raises more questions. It seems to suggest that the right to remain for EU nationals in the UK may not be settled until this separate immigration bill is put forward and passed. This would only prolong the uncertainty that EU nationals in the UK are feeling.
Leaving this future immigration bill aside, the proposed amendment actually falls short of asking the government to provide a unilateral guarantee to EU nationals now. And it gives the government some leeway by saying that proposals should be brought forward on this “within three months” of triggering Article 50.
Here’s the amendment to the bill:
Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.
You can also see the bill as amended here.
There is also little reason to believe that the EU would not wish to reciprocate the guarantee for Brits living in the rest of the EU. It’s Britain who voted to leave and one of the main reasons for doing so was to control immigration from the EU. There has been nothing from the EU that shows it wants to do the same for British migrants. This isn’t on the EU. It’s on Britain.
As many have pointed out (including some peers during the debate), securing the rights of EU nationals in the UK would only help secure the same rights for Brits. So if the bill is approved by both houses with this amendment, it would only serve to get those assurances early on in negotiations. This is, after all, what the government said it wants.
During the debate, Lord Tebbit said that he couldn’t understand why Parliament seemed more concerned with the rights of “foreigners” (never mind that many of those “foreigners” have lived in this country for decades, worked here and have families here) then it was for “the rights of British people to live freely and peacefully in those other parts of Europe.” You can see a clip of his speech in the Channel 4 News tweet below. Well, there are measures that the UK government can take to reassure Brits living in the EU. They include guaranteeing their rights to current healthcare and pension benefits, which the British government has the power to do. But it has so far chosen not to.
Lord Tebbit says the Government should be more concerned about its own citizens after Brexit, not those from EU countries living in the UK pic.twitter.com/eHIZCWmKno
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) 1 March 2017
Also, as this tweet by Paul Bernal points out, staying in the EU would be the best way to safeguard the lives, futures, healthcare, pensions and more of Brits living in the EU.
The best way to safeguard the lives, futures, healthcare, pensions etc of Brits living in the EU would be to, err, stay in the EU.
— Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) 2 March 2017