What the row over European citizens reveals about Theresa May

By not guaranteeing the rights of European citizens in Britain, the government has missed an opportunity to give peace of mind and to secure diplomatic goodwill.

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Should the Brexit bill include a guarantee for the three million EU citizens living and working in Britain already?

The government’s argument is that in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom, it will delay equivalent certainty being given to the 1.5 million British citizens living in the other nations of the European Union.

There are a couple of problems to note here. The first is that there is no such thing as an EU-wide deal for rights to remain across the European Union. If you are a Nigerian, your right to remain in Poland is different to your right to remain in Germany. When Britain leaves the European Union, we won’t be a member of the EU, but a country outside the EU. (This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but much of the commentary around reciprocal rights seems to have forgotten this, so it is worth reiterating.)

Without some kind of associate membership of the European Union, which Theresa May has ruled out, it is difficult to see what meaningful EU-wide deal for British citizens would look like. After Brexit, Brits abroad will have different rights if they live in France to if they lived in Poland, just as people from everywhere outside the European Union do.

In terms of protecting the rights of British citizens abroad, the countries which make up the bulk of the EU citizens with rights to protect here in the UK are from the eastern bloc and Portugal. The countries where British citizens live in great numbers are Spain, France and Ireland. The rights of British citizens in Ireland are already guaranteed by obligations that exceed the lifetime of Britain’s EU membership anyway. No government in France is going to be particularly moved to treat British citizens better because of how Britain treats or mistreats Polish citizens working in Britain.

But even if you suppose that would work, the difficulty is that, rightly or wrongly, no-one at a senior level, either in the Conservative Party here or in the governments of the European Union believes that the British government won’t guarantee the rights of EU citizens already living here to remain in the United Kingdom.

So there isn’t really an advantage to be extracted on behalf of British citizens living abroad by not bringing forward legislation to secure the rights of EU citizens already living in the United Kingdom. What there is are two missed opportunities: the first is to give peace of mind to European citizens in Britain, the second to win useful goodwill from the other nations of the European Union.

The real reason why that is happening is because the Prime Minister wants an unamended Brexit Bill, a concern that in her view is more important than the benefits of making guarantees to EU citizens living in the United Kingdom. A reminder that much of the groupthink which suggests that Theresa May’s big problem is a surfeit of caution is far from the mark. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.