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Brexit: EU Citizens

Volume 776: debated on Monday 24 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assurances they can give to European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, and British citizens living in other European Union countries, regarding their position following the negotiations for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals here. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible are if British citizens’ rights in other EU member states were not protected in return.

My Lords, would it not show that we are still good Europeans if we gave an assurance to all EU citizens living in this country, regardless of Article 50 or whatever, that they are welcome to stay here on the same rights as they have had up to now?

My Lords, I think that the Prime Minister has been absolutely clear about her position. Obviously, there is a negotiation to be gone through, the timing of which I cannot state to your Lordships’ House because I do not know it, but that will all be determined in due course.

Do the Government intend to seek specific healthcare agreements with members of the European Union? This is a matter of great importance to British citizens, particularly the older ones, living in other EU states.

My Lords, healthcare agreements, as with any other agreements that we might seek through our negotiation with the EU, will all be determined in the fullness of time.

Could the Minister tell us whether she, or other Ministers, would feel reassured by the repeated assertions that the rights of EU nationals in this country will be protected only in so far as the rights of UK nationals in other EU member states are protected?

My Lords, I cannot say any more than I said in response to the first Question, which is that the Prime Minister has made her position absolutely clear, and unless the rights of our citizens and other EU countries change, that position remains.

Is not the blunt reality of the situation that those people who have settled in the United Kingdom, as well as our people who have settled in the 27 other countries, did so on the unequivocal understanding that their rights would be respected in perpetuity, and that to allow dubiety to exist now is both a breach of a solemn word of honour and indeed conduct unworthy of the highest standards of international comity?

My Lords, I apologise, but I really have nothing further to add. The same question has been asked in different ways and, while the Prime Minister has made her intentions very clear, everything is part of the renegotiation process, because things have changed.

Nearly 3,000 Britons applied for citizenship in 18 European countries over the first eight months of this year, according to reports in the media—a 250% increase on the figures for 2015. That suggests that the Government’s stance is not having a helpful impact on our citizens living abroad, let alone on EU citizens living in this country. Is it really, in the light of the Government’s answer just now, the Government’s position that they have no idea for how long the current uncertainty, affecting millions of people, will be allowed to continue?

My Lords, there will obviously be a huge process of negotiation with the EU as we exit it, and we cannot give exact timescales or running commentaries on negotiations.

My Lords, would not my noble friend at least agree that there is sometimes merit in leading by example?

There certainly is merit in leading by example, but there is definitely a disbenefit in showing your hand too soon.

Could the Minister perhaps be so kind as to have a different approach to the one she has taken so far and confirm that the British Government will not themselves place on the negotiating table any removal of rights to any EU citizens who are here? I am sure that if that assurance could be given, which was implicit in what the Minister said in her original Answer, it would be very helpful.

The answer to that is that we want to get the best deal for everyone, both our citizens living abroad and EU nationals living in this country.

Would the Minister not agree that many of these people are making a serious and profound contribution to the well-being of this country? They are to be regarded with dignity. Will she make it absolutely clear that in no way do the Government as a whole endorse the concept that they are bargaining chips?

My Lords, people are not bargaining chips, but the whole negotiating process has to be taken in the round. I absolutely acknowledge when the noble Lord says—because I hope I might be included as one of them—that EU nationals have made a great contribution with their skills and what they have done for this country.

My Lords, is false reassurance being given to EU nationals who have been here for five years? They are told that they are fine, but my understanding is that their rights are under EU law and, presumably, would not persist beyond our exit, so they would have to translate that into domestic law through something like indefinite leave to remain. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case?

My Lords, again I cannot comment on what will be the subject of negotiations. However, I can confirm that EU nationals who have been continuously and lawfully resident in the UK for five years automatically acquire a permanent right of residence under EU law. This will not change, as long as the UK remains in the EU.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend has nothing further to add on this—and she does it very well, if I may say so—but will she at least convey to her colleagues in government the perfectly clear feeling of this House that it might be a rather smart move, in terms of reassuring British citizens abroad and EU citizens here, if we made a unilateral move in that direction, indicating that we were prepared to do what is good for the citizens of the whole of Europe by initiating action ourselves?

My noble friend articulates that very well—far better than I could. I will certainly take those points back.

My Lords, perhaps I may help the Minister by asking a different question. Can she tell us which, if any, other Governments in the European Union have issued the kind of guarantee that has been mentioned this afternoon? If they have not given any such indication, why should we?

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question, but maybe that comes back to the previous point that we are leading by example.