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Reciprocal rights: What does the UK government want?

We know what the EU wants. But despite Theresa May’s confidence in securing a deal on reciprocal rights for Brits and EU citizens, we still don’t know what she thinks that looks like.


The EU’s position on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Brits living in the EU is now pretty clear. It was set out clearly in the negotiating guidelines approved by the European Council on 29 April and placed as a top priority for the withdrawal talks. You can see the text in full below:


The right for every EU citizen, and of his or her family members, to live, to work or to study in any EU Member State is a fundamental aspect of the European Union. Along with other rights provided under EU law, it has shaped the lives and choices of millions of people. Agreeing reciprocal guarantees to safeguard the status and rights derived from EU law at the date of withdrawal of EU and UK citizens, and their families, affected by the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union will be the first priority for the negotiations. Such guarantees must be effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive, including the right to acquire permanent residence after a continuous period of five years of legal residence. Citizens should be able to exercise their rights through smooth and simple administrative procedures.

You can read the guidelines in full at europa.eu.


The EU want both sets of affected citizens to have the same rights they do now and for these to be “enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive”. The issue is so significant that as the Guardian reports, Guy Verhofstadt, the lead on Brexit in the European Parliament said that MEPs would veto any deal that did not uphold citizens’ rights.

We will never give consent if the issues of citizens’ rights, on both sides, has not been dealt with in a satisfactory way.

Guy Verhofstadt, MEP and lead negotiator for the European Parliament

Before triggering Article 50 and despite calls from affected citizens, businesses, trade unions and parliament for the government to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK, Theresa May’s government insisted that it could not do so until reciprocal rights could be secured. The government also pointed to the EU as being a stumbling block because of its refusal to enter into negotiations until Article 50 was triggered.

More than six weeks since Theresa May sent her Article 50 notification letter, we know what the EU’s position is on the issue. Curiously, however, the UK government’s position is not at all clear. Do they want their rights secured as is under EU law? For the EU, that includes welfare rights, healthcare rights, pension rights as well as the equal recognition of qualifications.

These are rights that are just as important to Brits living in the EU as they are to EU citizens living in the UK. Indeed, the Guardian reports that some UK nationals living in the EU believe that they will actually be worse off than their EU counterparts. The paper quotes one Brit living in Germany, David Hole, as saying “EU citizens won’t lose their rights, they simply won’t be able to use them while they live in the UK”. He adds that UK citizens lose the rights acquired through EU membership in 27 countries whereas other EU citizens only lose those rights in the UK. Luckily for other EU citizens, they didn’t vote to leave the EU. Hole’s comments don’t just demonstrate what Brits living in the EU could lose from Brexit, they also demonstrate what all Brits lose out on: free movement in 27 other countries.

Unless the next government wants to put limitations on those rights, hopefully reciprocal rights that are comprehensive beyond residency can be agreed to the benefit of Brits in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. But Brits living in the UK will still lose out on free movement in 27 other countries.

Here’s a great read on free movement from Jonathan Portes in the New Statesman. He explains how looking at free movement in the context of the United Kingdom shows that just as London has benefitted from free movement from other parts of the country, the UK has also benefitted from free movement within the EU.


Image: © Cicero Castro / Shutterstock.com
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