An early deal on British and EU citizens is good for Britain and the negotiations

An early deal on British and EU citizens is good for Britain and the negotiations

In the next couple of months, the European Council will meet with UK politicians for the first of two years of negotiations that will shape Britain’s exit from the EU and emergence as an independent nation.

The scale and complexity of such a historic undertaking cannot be overstated. Negotiations will cover everything from trade arrangements to patent law. They will involve disagreement, compromise and doggedness from both sides.

But there is one issue which both sides can gain from taking off the table early, conclusively and without it getting tangled up in the main negotiations: the status of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons resident in EU countries.

It is in everyone’s interest – morally and practically – to agree a standalone early deal on British citizens and EU citizens at that first meeting. It would be good for Britain, good for the negotiations and good for the UK and EU citizens who it would save from a two-year legal limbo.

The Prime Minister’s strong political hand is dependent partly on her promise, offered to MPs in return for support for an unamended Article 50 Bill, to take EU citizens’ status off the negotiating table at the first opportunity and she confirmed her intentions on the day of the Article 50 notification. There is also support for this across both Houses. When I met with officials from DExEU and the Home Office two weeks ago to discuss our proposals for an early deal, they were receptive and it was a positive meeting.

On the other side of the Channel, Donald Tusk spoke recently of the importance of using the first meeting of the European Council to secure ‘certainty and clarity’ for citizens. Guy Verhofstadt, not always a figure who elicits agreement amongst British counterparts, is for once singing from the same hymn sheet: he has said that the question must be answered before any other issues are looked at. And when the3million met with Michel Barnier last week, he stated that citizens’ rights would be the first item on the negotiation table, before budget and borders.

So there is agreement in principle across the political divide, and among the various negotiating parties. The question therefore becomes: how to deliver an early deal on the status of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe?

Legal experts agree an early deal on our status is possible within the framework of Article 50. Negotiators need to simply agree a separate, standalone deal (guaranteeing our status) that operates independently of the main Article 50 agreement so in the unlikely event that negotiations don’t complete, citizens’ rights will be protected. All it needs is for politicians to follow up their promises with actions. Then the issue is settled and out the way – and negotiations can begin in earnest.

Make no mistake: this is in no way holding up Brexit. Instead, it will expedite the process. Substantive negotiations are unlikely to start until October; an agreement on the principle to take off the table citizens rights can be reached during the first meeting, where the schedule for the negotiations will be agreed.

The Prime Minister will be seen by the Commons as having delivered her promise and will gain credit. On the EU side, they will be clear of criticisms of treating people as bargaining chips. It will set an important precedent of goodwill and cooperation that will help Britain get the deal it wants.

What would the cost be of failure to deliver an early deal? Political discomfort and disquiet, yes. Chaos for thousands of British businesses and employers, certainly. But more importantly, millions of Brits and EU citizens would be condemned to at least two years of constant uncertainty. This means for millions of people like me that I would be forced to live without knowing if I would have to leave the country I now call home. That’s why we simply can’t wait two years to find out.

An early, standalone deal on the status of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe would be deliverable, good for Britain, help along negotiations, and settle damaging uncertainty. Politicians should deliver on their promises and use their very first meeting to reach an agreement.