IN A FURTHER sign that the plight of British expats living in Spain haven’t been forgotten, MEPs will veto any Brexit deal that fails to uphold the rights of EU citizens, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator has said.
Guy Verhofstadt said the parliament would block any Brexit deal that failed to offer adequate protections for 3.5 million EU nationals in the UK and 1.2 million Britons in Europe.
Citizens’ rights would be a crucial factor in determining whether parliament gave its consent, he said. “We will never give consent if the issues of citizens’ rights, on both sides, have not been dealt with in a satisfactory way.”
Verhofstadt was speaking at a special session in the parliament last Thursday to examine the legal and political minefield facing 4.7 million people who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves on the wrong side of the Brexit divide.
While Verhofstadt will not himself be part of the Brexit negotiations, the parliament’s right of veto is a powerful, blunt instrument, which he said he hoped to use to shape the outcome.
Emphasising that parliament would bring “the necessary pressure” to bear, the MEP urged EU leaders to think about giving special privileges – such as residency rights, the right to vote in European elections and consular protection – to British nationals after Brexit.
The proposals were couched in more cautious language than Verhofstadt’s previous assertion that “associate citizenship” for British nationals would be “on the table” during Brexit talks. That particular idea was rejected at a very early stage by the EU member states, who are conducting the negotiations. EU diplomats said the idea looked legally impossible and politically unsellable.
Verhofstadt accepted and agreed that it was “not an easy issue”, because appetite for changing the EU treaty was “not so big”, but he called for lawmakers to study the options.
“What we could do is to envisage and to offer, as part of the future agreement, a possibility for UK citizens who have lost their citizenship … certain advantages, privileges, treatment. Can it be done? … We have asked for a conceptual paper to examine that.”
The packed room also heard from Leona Bashow, a Manchester resident and immigration lawyer, who called on MEPs to preserve the EU citizenship rights of all British nationals. “There is a duty to protect every EU citizen within the member states, including all the British citizens living in the UK, who now face the involuntary loss of their EU citizenship,” she said.
While many MEPs are sympathetic to her argument, a recent report for the European parliament’s constitutional affairs committee concluded that UK citizens had no right to keep EU citizenship after Brexit.
“General international law does not provide protection of the subjective rights and freedoms that may survive withdrawal from the treaty that created them,” was the conclusion of two law professors at the University of Castilla-La Mancha.
Claude Moraes, the Labour MEP who chaired the meeting, said Verhofstadt had done the right thing by raising the bar on EU citizenship, although he thought it could not be delivered. “This strikes a chord with lots of young people who feel that they have really lost something: the ability to work, travel, easily in any EU country. I think this was very underestimated in the referendum, it was ignored.”
Lawyers and campaign groups also spoke at the meeting, but the British government was not on the platform. Moraes said he was disappointed that no one from the British government had attended, despite invitations sent out three weeks ago. “We would have preferred them to be here at any level,” he said. “There is a genuine question mark about the approach the British government are taking … It is playing a Brexit election and that makes people nervous.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the European parliament’s invitation to attend the joint hearing on Thursday [11 May] and have written to them offering to send a government representative to speak to the committees about this on an alternative date.”