The European parliament has issued an embarrassing snub to Theresa May’s concessions over EU migrants, rejecting the UK’s offer in a move that casts fresh doubt on the prospect of reaching an agreement on the transition period by March.
Despite previously insisting during a trip to China that she wanted to treat EU nationals arriving during the transition period differently from those already in the country, the prime minister appeared to have responded to pressure to backtrack in the hope of sealing an agreement on the terms of the 21-month cushion after Brexit.
But at a meeting of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group on Wednesday evening, led by the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, MEPs concluded that the UK had not gone far enough.
Verhofstadt said in a statement that the UK’s position was unacceptable to the parliament, which will have a right to veto any withdrawal agreement.
The body was unhappy with the UK’s revised proposal, under which EU migrants who come to live and work in Britain during the transition period would still not have the same rights once it ends to bring family to join them as EU nationals already resident in Britain who have secured “settled status”. They would instead have to pass a minimum income threshold test.
The announcement will cast doubt on the prospects of reaching an agreement on the transition period by a European council summit at the end of March, as desired by the UK. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has already warned in recent weeks that that goal is in doubt because of differences between the two sides.
Verhofstadt said: “We have taken note of the UK government policy statement and the clarification it provides for EU citizens who will go to the UK during the Brexit transition period and will in principle have the right to settle permanently in the UK.
“However, we cannot accept that there will be any form of discrimination between EU citizens who arrive before the start of the transition and after.
“The full European Union acquis [the accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions of the EU] must apply during any transition, including for citizens, and no differentiation can take place.”
However, the British government’s paper says EU migrants arriving during the transition period who wish to stay for the long term will also have to register within three months of arrival and their rights will only be enforceable in UK courts, and not through the European court of justice.
Verhofstadt said: “It can certainly not be the case that EU citizens arriving during any transition period are forced to accept a lower standard of rights, in particular those relating to family reunion, child benefits and access to judicial redress via the European court of justice.”
According to the UK’s paper, the concessions had been made because “it is important to provide certainty to business and those EU citizens who wish to move to the UK during the implementation period as to the terms under which they will be able to remain in the UK and make a life here once the period is over”.
The development, however, makes it less likely that the differences between the UK and the EU over the terms of the transition period can be settled in the next few weeks.
The UK has also not agreed with the proposed end date of 31 December 2020 or the EU’s proposals to keep the status quo on fisheries.
The government also wants a right to prevent new EU laws applying to the UK during the transition period if they could be shown to be harmful, something that is being resisted by Brussels.