Prime Minister Theresa May said that millions of European Union nationals living in the U.K. will enjoy the same entitlements in their daily lives as British people after Brexit, as she tried to woo the 27 remaining EU members with a sweeping promise to protect their citizens’ rights.
EU expats residing in Britain will be treated as if they were British for the purposes of receiving U.K. state education, health care, benefits and pensions, May told Parliament in London on Monday. The premier said she wanted a reciprocal agreement to guarantee the rights of one million British citizens living in other EU countries.
“I know there has been some anxiety about what would happen to EU citizens at the point we leave the European Union,” May told lawmakers. “I want to completely reassure people that under these plans no EU citizen currently in the U.K. lawfully will be asked to leave at the point the U.K. leaves the EU — we want you to stay.”
May needs to make quick progress on agreeing citizens’ rights so she can move ahead to discuss the new trade agreement she wants with the EU after Brexit. She might need to make concessions after European leaders last week criticized her opening bid for falling short and for threatening to leave their citizens worse off than now.
An estimated 3.2 million EU nationals are currently resident in the U.K. Setting out details of her offer to them, May said that those who have been living in the U.K. for five years will get a new “settled status” after Brexit, giving them the same rights as British citizens to bring family members into the country.
This will prove to be a sticking point in talks. Nationals of EU countries currently have fewer restrictions on bringing in non-EU family members than British citizens, who must prove their income reaches a certain threshold among other things. Still, giving ground would open up May to criticism at home from euroskeptics.
In a 20-page document published for the first time on Monday, the government signaled it will keep rebuffing EU demands for the European Court of Justice to have a role in arbitrating disputes. It also said the cut-off date for rights could be set in March 2017, while the EU has said it wants it to be when Britain leaves the bloc in 2019.
The government also said it would streamline the process for applying for residency although those who recently filled in an 85-page application would still need to go through the new system.
The U.K. made some concessions. It will allow EU nationals to send benefits to children living elsewhere and also told them they won’t have to prove they have comprehensive sickness insurance when seeking residency.
It also provided a template for a possible transition period for after Brexit by suggesting a “grace period” of up to two years in which applicants can get their papers in order.
May first outlined her offer at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels last week, and received a lukewarm response, with EU President Donald Tusk saying it was “below expectations.”
“EU citizens make an invaluable contribution to our United Kingdom — to our economy, our public services and our everyday lives,” May told lawmakers. “They are an integral part of the economic, cultural and social fabric of our country and I have always been clear that I want to protect their rights.”