Barnier rebuffs appeal over citizens’ rights in event of no-deal Brexit

EU negotiator rejects Stephen Barclay’s call to ringfence key part of withdrawal agreement

 Michel Barnier said in his letter to the Brexit secretary that citizens’ rights could not be picked apart from the withdrawal agreement. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

The EU’s chief negotiator has rejected an appeal by the UK’s Brexit secretary for the full gamut of citizens’ rights in the withdrawal agreement to be protected in the event of a no-deal exit.

In a clear signal from Brussels that it is not willing to countenance a “managed no deal”, Michel Barnier said the suggestion that such elements of the agreement could be carved out was “far from straightforward” and that the focus should be on getting the Brexit deal ratified.

While emphasising that British nationals living in the EU would not be “left in the dark” about their rights in the event of the UK leaving without a deal, he told Stephen Barclay that a range of problems existed in ringfencing the rights contained in the agreement, including the continued role of the European court of justice (ECJ).

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, which has been rejected three times by the Commons, the ECJ would give rulings on the interpretation of the rights contained in the agreement. There would be no legal basis for such an arrangement if the withdrawal agreement is not ratified by the Commons.

The Conservative MP Alberto Costa, who forced Barclay to rethink government policy on European citizens’ post-Brexit rights through the tabling of a motion backed by the Commons, said it was no surprise Barclay had been rebuffed.

Costa said the government needed to launch a taskforce to address the issue. “The UK government needs to do a lot lot more. Simply to write a letter to Barnier and expect a positive response is simply not good enough,” he said. “The government have not been trying enough to secure EU citizens’ rights.”

The EU negotiator’s letter to Barclay came in response to a request from the British government for discussions to be opened on ringfencing the citizens’ rights aspects of the withdrawal agreement.

Member states are, on the advice of the European commission, developing their own legislation to protect the rights of British nationals living in their countries but there are areas that remain uncovered.

In his letter to Barnier, Barclay said the government had “particular concerns in relation to healthcare arrangements as these are not covered by the current proposals published by the commission”.

He added: “The government’s position remains that the withdrawal agreement provides the best way of providing confidence to citizens. Nonetheless, given our shared commitment to protecting the rights of citizens in all scenarios, I would welcome your views on the proposal put forward by our parliament to ringfence citizens’ rights and I propose that we discuss this issue in more detail when we meet.”

Barnier wrote that the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement was part of an “overall and comprehensive approach” to Brexit that could not be picked apart. He pointed out that the Irish backstop, designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, was one of the elements that was to the “benefit of people residing there”.

“It is therefore far from straightforward to identify which provisions would need to be ‘carved out’ as part of the ringfencing exercise proposed by the House of Commons in February, with the risk of unequal treatment of certain categories of citizens.”

In a second letter by the Brexit secretary, Barclay responded: “I agree that our joint efforts should remain focused on making sure that we reach an agreement in order to secure an orderly departure for both the UK and the EU. However, I suggest that together our officials continue to work on how we best protect citizens’ rights in all scenarios.”

Speaking at a press conference following a meeting with Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, Barclay insisted that an EU-wide approach to guaranteeing citizens rights “made sense”.

A spokesman for the 3million organisation representing the EU nationals living in the UK said: “The letter shows that the UK government has understood the need to safeguard our citizens’ rights in case of no deal under the Article 50 procedure. The EU must act now, so we can get on with our lives and stop being the bargaining chips of the Brexit negotiations.”

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