Fiasco over right to remain can be repaired

by David Hannay | 01.12.2016

If the government tactical handling of this week’s botched attempt to settle the issue of the “acquired rights” of EU citizens currently living and working in the UK and of our citizens currently living and working in the other member states ahead of the negotiations for withdrawal is anything to go by, then we have plenty to worry about when the negotiations get under way next spring. Our national team at the Brexit ministry have shown themselves to be a bunch of amateurs. They have discovered the hard way that you can tot up a lot of “yeses” in EU capitals and still get a “no” in Brussels, particularly if you fail to square the capital of the member state which matters the most in today’s EU, Berlin.            

Was this miserable outcome predictable? Entirely so. After all, the EU had collectively warned us in July that no aspect of the withdrawal negotiations could be settled ahead of the triggering of Article 50; and we had chosen ourselves, quite justifiably, to postpone that decision until the spring of 2017. That warning has been repeated any number of times since then. We chose to ignore it.         

Was this fiasco unavoidable? Certainly not. We had ourselves largely created the problem we tried to resolve by hinting, not very subtly, that the status and rights of those four million or more citizens spread across Europe was a matter for negotiation. Liam Fox had said as much at the time of the Conservative Party conference in October. Not surprisingly those hints created a lot of anxiety and alarm.

Having created the problem unilaterally, we could have taken a large step towards resolving it in the same way. All that was needed was a unilateral UK statement that we did not intend for our part to take any steps to question or to reduce the acquired rights of EU citizens in the UK so long as our citizens in other member states were treated similarly. This approach was put to the government several times in recent exchanges in the House of Lords. They chose to ignore it. Such a unilateral statement would have engendered a considerable amount of goodwill across Europe and possibly plenty of matching statements. It would not have settled the matter there and then; but it would have ensured that, when negotiations do begin next spring, there was a good chance that it would be settled at an early stage.     

Would such a unilateral statement have prejudiced the chances of British citizens across Europe getting a fair deal? It would not. It would actually have made it more likely they would get one by making it clear that any action by other member states to deprive them of their rights, of which there has in any case so far been no sign, would invalidate our own unilateral statement.           

Is the situation now irretrievable? Probably not. If the government makes clear its own approach to the problem in the terms set out above, it should be possible to reduce people’s anxiety and to get the eventual negotiations on this matter off on the right foot when they start next spring. But if the government chooses to sulk and to exchange ill-tempered accusations of responsibility across the Channel, then a bad situation will only be made worse. And a negotiation, which will need a lot of goodwill if it is not to descend into acrimony, will get under way under the worst of auspices.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

Categories: Migration, Uncategorised

4 Responses to “Fiasco over right to remain can be repaired”

  • An even simpler solution would be for the feuding Tory politicians to admit that the referendum, which in itself was a thoroughly dishonest fiasco, is only advisory and that we remain in the EU at least until another General Election.

  • Well said. If a gentleman is someone who never causes offence unintentionally, then our government is a League of Gentlemen (possibly in other ways also). One oddity of this affair which the reporting seems to have overlooked is thatneither the text of the MPs’ letter to Tusk, nor the list of its signatories who have made a such great contribution to UK/EU amity and the interests of EU citizens, seem to have been put in the public domain.

  • When one has been a member of an alliance of nations for forty years or more and been an active member in the conduct of its business, is it possible to imagine that the separation agreement, so that the country in question can concentrate uniquely on its own national interests, can be carried out without acrimony and distrust ( not to say disgust ) ?