The government is ignoring advice on EU citizens’ rights that could save a Brexit deal

Groups such as the3million have come up with alternative plans, but the government would rather sleepwalk into no deal.

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With negotiating time running out, you'd expect the government would be taking basic steps to ensure it emerges with some kind of Brexit deal. Yet if its treatment of organisations representing EU citizens in the UK is anything to go by, Britain's leaders are failing to do even the bare minimum to avoid crashing out.

Last week, the Department for Exiting the European Union published a technical note on citizens’ rights, detailing the “settled status” for EU nationals after Brexit. They even made a pretty video out of it:

The government promised to give “plenty of time” for EU citizens to apply with “minimised” document evidence, through a “digital, streamlined and user-friendly process” that will not cost “more than a British passport” and guarantees the applicant a right to appeal “if their application is unsuccessful”. It also underlined that no proof of comprehensive sickness insurance or fingerprints will be needed in the process and promises a “simpler, lower-cost process” for people who already hold permanent residence.

It's not the first time the government has been advised that its offer on citizens' rights falls short. Back in June, when Theresa May first outlined the settled status proposal, EU citizens (and campaign group the3million) warned that it was “too little, too late”.

“Fundamentally, the UK proposes to deprive EU citizens of current rights and is trying to impose 'settled status' instead, which is inferior to permanent residence in terms of loss of status, family reunion rights, risk of deportation and many other issues”, the group wrote in its reply. About 96 per cent of the UK’s EU citizens reject the settled status proposal, the3million added.

“EU, don’t be fooled, your citizens are not protected,” tweeted Stijn Smismans, the director of Cardiff University’s Centre for European Law and Governance. “It’s too vague,” he told the New Statesman, “how do you implement that?” There are many questions left unanswered by the DExEU offer, he says: what are the rights of those with temporary status? Would current holders of permanent residence have to apply again, which means paying again and undergoing new security checks? Would the Home Office store data on EU citizens? “The procedure and the substance of rights are both not sufficient,” Smismans concluded.

Smismans co-authored the3million’s alternative proposal, called the “registered residence rights”: a process to grant each EU citizen who has been here five years UK permanent residence, or temporary residence until five years are reached. The text warns that the government’s offer “drags EU citizens into the ‘hostile environment’” defined by UK immigration law, would give "arbitrary powers” to the Home Office in rejecting applications and that settled status would mean “no guarantee that the rules won’t change during our lifetime”.

The government’s stubborn refusal to hear the concerns of groups such as the3million is beginning to constitute self-harm. “We discovered in the media the proposal for settled status, after they [the DExEU] asked to meet for advice”, Smismans told me. “They claim [in the technical note] that people have been consulted, but in practice, and on the substance, there has been no involvement at all.”

The fact is the European Union will not agree a deal that fails to protect the rights of its citizens living in the UK, and like the3million, it isn't fooled by the DExEU offer, calling it “inadequate”.

“We don’t recognise reports suggesting that a deal on citizens' rights is almost finalised. There are still major issues that have to be resolved,” reads a paper published by the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, the day after the government’s technical note. It outlines red lines that the settled status proposal must respect (including being a cost-free, automatic, condition-less process, only coming into force after a transition period is concluded, introducing joint declaration for families). “EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU were told that nothing would change because of Brexit. The fact that the UK government needs 25 paragraphs to explain how their lives will change proves this was a fabrication,” Verhofstadt added.

To meet the demands of the EU before the December deadline, DExEU will sooner or later have to consider the3million’s alternative proposal or come up with its own version of extended residence rights. As trade talks won’t go ahead without agreement on citizens’ rights, and with the clock ticking, the government is ignoring advice and heading straight for a Brexit cliff edge. 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.