British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, speaks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as they arrive for a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels.
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Brussels: Theresa May said her offer to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain after Brexit was “very fair and very serious”, but her EU peers were sceptical, with Belgium’s leader saying it could contain a nasty “cat-in-the-bag” surprise.
“I want to reassure all those EU citizens who are in the UK, who have made their lives and homes in the UK, that no one will have to leave. We won’t be seeing families split apart,” the British Prime Minister told reporters on the second day of an EU summit in Brussels on Friday.
“Last night I was pleased to be able to set out what is a very fair and a very serious offer for EU citizens who are living in the United Kingdom,” she said, adding that she would issue detailed proposals on Monday and seek reciprocal rights for about one million Britons living on the continent.
EU leaders sought more detail, however.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called May’s offer a “good start” but made clear that her focus was on the EU’s future without a Britain many view as politically crippled by rows over Brexit that have been inflamed by May losing her majority in a June 8 election.
For Poland, whose 800,000 citizens are the biggest cohort of the 3 million Europeans in Britain, deputy foreign minister Konrad Szymanski said: “We appreciate the effort but the offer does not meet all the criteria the EU agreed on as red lines.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel found it “particularly vague” and described it using a Flemish expression for a dubious gift: “We don’t want a cat in the bag,” he said.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU chief executive, said: “That’s a first step, but this step is not sufficient.”
In particular, the EU 27 want their citizens to be able to enforce their rights in Britain through the European Court of Justice, something May has flatly ruled out. They also dispute her attempt to limit those rights potentially to people already living in Britain before she triggered Brexit three months ago.
Given the floor for 10 minutes at the end of a Brussels summit dinner, May outlined five principles, notably that no EU citizen resident in Britain at a cut-off date would be deported. There are roughly 3 million living there now.
EU citizens who had lived in Britain for five years could stay for life. Others would be allowed to stay until they reach the five-year threshold for “settled status”. Red tape for permanent residency would be cut and there would be a two-year grace period to avoid “cliff edge” misfortunes.
But Brussels has been dismissive of May’s call for sweeping and quick guarantees for expats and says only detailed legal texts can reassure people and take into account many complex, multinational family situations, also involving non-Europeans.
Leaders had agreed with summit chair Donald Tusk not to open discussions with May and she left early on Thursday evening, leaving the other 27 to discuss other Brexit issues without her.
They were briefed by Michel Barnier, who launched the Brexit negotiations for them on Monday, and discussed the move of two EU agencies from London after Britain quits.
Weakened by an election she did not need to call, May has watered down her government’s programme to try to get it through parliament and set a softer tone in her approach to Brexit.
Yet her aims have held — she wants a clean break from the bloc, leaving the lucrative single market and customs union and so reducing immigration and ending EU courts’ jurisdiction.
However, her political weakness have generated concern that the divorce may not be orderly. Manfred Weber, German leader of conservatives in the European Parliament which must approve any Brexit deal, said lack of detail in May’s rights proposals was “quite worrying for the rest of the negotiations”.
Describing “an island in chaos” compared to a continent growing in confidence in its economy and leaders like new French President Emmanuel Macron, Weber said: “It still seems that the UK government has no idea what they want to achieve.”