EU citizens hopeful of UK residency deal even if Brexit talks fail

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent
Antonio Tajani, the European parliament president. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

EU citizens settled in the UK should get a deal on lifetime rights to remain legally in the UK even if Theresa May walks out of Brexit negotiations with no overall deal, the European parliament’s president has said.

Antonio Tajani told campaigners at a private meeting in London that he wanted to have a separate deal for EU citizens to ensure they were protected whatever the outcome of Brexit talks.

Anne-Laure Donskoy, co-founder of the3million, a grassroots organisation campaigning for EU citizens living in the UK, said: “We had a good meeting. He spoke about working on a separate text, those were his exact words. This is the first time this has been said.

“This is what we want, a separate agreement that is legally binding, so that if negotiations fail, EU citizens would not fall under UK immigration law.”

The3million and other campaign groups have said that if a deal is not done, many EU citizens who settled in the UK legally under European law would have to leave because they could not meet the stricter immigration laws applying to non-EU citizens.

Tajani told the Guardian that isolating the issue was also the best way of protecting the 1.2 million Britons living in Europe, but a side deal could be a potential challenge to Theresa May, who has indicated she will not sign any deal if the conditions are not good for Britain.

“I am … clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” May said in her Lancaster House speech in January. She also claimed that a deal on EU citizens lacked the backing of one or two European leaders.

Tajani said the European parliament wanted members states and the UK to sign off on a high-level political agreement on citizens’ rights in the coming months.

This would provide a clear framework for the European commission, which would then work out a technical agreement on pensions, healthcare and other employment and social rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens under EU law, he said.

Tajani conceded that it was “not easy to achieve immediately an agreement” on citizens’ rights with no universal employment or social rights across all 28 member states.

After his first one-to-one meeting with May in Downing Street on Thursday, Tajani said: “There are a lot of technical problems – pensions, workers, students – for this we need to work a lot at technical level between the different negotiators, but if there is political decision in favour, it is easier to achieve the goal.

He said the exit deal would include a provision for the European court of justice to continue to oversee legacy laws pertinent to EU citizens. This would guard against Britain reneging on the preservation of employment and social rights, which would effectively hold in perpetuity for any EU citizens already settled in the UK.

Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister, said a separate deal was necessary “because otherwise EU citizens and Brits in the EU have to wait for a final deal, which might never come for all we know now, if the UK crashes out.”

He said there would have to be legislation in the EU and the UK to make it legally binding.

The New Europeans campaign group, which also met Tajani in London, said it was vital that the rights of citizens affected by Brexit should “not be subject to negotiations”.

Samia Badani, the group’s director, said: “I think the signs were encouraging . They certainly realised that EU citizens live in a heightened state of anxiety and that we are asking for concrete commitment, namely that such rights should be guaranteed irrespective of the outcome of the overall negotiations.”