The bill initially went through the House of Commons unamended, only for the Lords to revise it to include amendments on securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and giving Parliament a meaningful vote on the outcome of the UK’s negotiations with the EU. In a process known as ‘ping pong’, the bill was sent back to the Commons for consideration, where amendments were rejected by MPs, with majorities of 48 and 45 respectively. The Lords later rejected the same amendments after Labour peers withdrew their opposition to the bill and accepted the supremacy of the Commons.
The government is now free to trigger Article 50 on schedule, which it is set to do by the end of March. Negotiations will then begin in earnest, with the UK government promising to put citizens’ rights at the top of the agenda.
Whatever rights are ultimately retained by EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in other Member States, there is no ‘best alternative‘ to EU membership under which they will continue to enjoy the same level of rights as they do whilst the UK is still a full member of the EU.
According to a study conducted by ECAS outlining future scenarios for a post-Brexit relationship between the EU and UK, a choice will have to be made about which rights to preserve for the more than 4 million EU and UK citizens directly affected by Brexit.
During a plenary debate in the European Parliament on 1 March, MEPs expressed their concern for EU migrants in the UK and Justice Commissioner Vera Jourová restated the UK’s free movement obligations as an EU Member State.
MEPs Claude Moraes (S&D, UK), Catherine Bearder (ALDE, UK) and Jean Lambert (Greens/EFA, UK) spoke about the difficulties and uncertainty facing EU citizens in the UK. From the “stifling bureaucracy” of residence applications to citizens being used as “political bargaining chips”, their situation was described as being “insulting” and “demeaning”.
There have been warnings of ‘legal limbo’ for EU citizens in the UK, despite the UK government’s assertion that it wants to “secure the status” of EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in other Member States as soon as possible. The size of the task of processing over 3 million EU citizens could overwhelm the UK’s administrative system and the absence of a population register may create potential difficulties in determining which EU nationals will be legally entitled to residency.
Furthermore, UK citizens residing in other EU member states have accused the government of ignoring their rights. Expat groups such as Expat Citizen Rights in the EU and Bremain in Spain have seen their attempts to engage with the government fall on deaf ears, contrary to official claims.
The European Ombudsman has urged her national and regional counterparts in the European Network of Ombudsmen to use her office as a “conduit” for obtaining information on citizens’ rights under EU law. She has also called on the European Commission to ensure the Brexit negotiations are as transparent as possible.
She vowed in a letter to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker “to do everything possible to assist in protecting EU citizens’ rights” and stated that the EU “can only benefit from more transparency” in the negotiations.