EU's Brexit negotiator vows to help British citizens maintain links with Europe


European politicians are considering how to allow British citizens to maintain their links to the continent after Brexit, the EU Parliament's chief negotiator has said.

Following suggestions that Britons may be able to pay to maintain some form of EU citizenship, Guy Verhofstadt said he was preparing a resolution to put to MEPs once negotiations start to be "open and generous" to individual UK citizens.

After repeating his warning that the UK will not be able to "cherry-pick" parts of EU membership in the negotiations, he told an audience at Chatham House: "We need also to be open and generous to the individual UK citizens.

"I can tell you I receive every day tens of letters ... (about) millions of citizens who are saying 'don't leave us alone. We feel still European citizens, and we want to continue our link to Europe because we are part of the same civilisation'.

"That is what we don't understand in Europe, we have a common heritage - a common civilisation, history, architectural, cultural, literature, you name it."

Mr Verhofstadt added: "We are scrutinising, thinking, debating how we could achieve that.

"That individual UK citizens would think their links with Europe are not broken." 

Mr Verhofstadt also appeared to back Theresa May's insistence that she can negotiate Britain's exit from the EU while simultaneously working out new trading terms under the two-year withdrawal process under Article 50 of the EU treaties.

The former Belgian PM said: "In the treaty, Article 50, we are saying a withdrawal can be agreed taking into consideration the future relationship.

"So you see it is a fantastic political text and it says it all - a withdrawal agreement in the light of the future relationship.

"That is literally in the treaty and that is what we need to apply."

Mr Verhofstadt also backed the Brexit timetable set out by the European Commission's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who said the Prime Minister should aim to conclude talks by October 2018 to give the EU time to approve it.

But the MEP said he thought negotiations would not begin in earnest until May or June, despite Mrs May's promise to trigger Article 50 by April to begin the formal divorce proceedings.

Mr Verhofstadt warned that any delay in ending the negotiation could see MEPs, who will need to approve any final deal, being influenced by European parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.

"The timetable is as follows - if we start by the beginning of May, the beginning of June the negotiations, take then 14 or 15 months, and then has to start the so-called consent procedure in the parliament," he said.

"Because we need to be ready before the European elections of 2019.

"So that means that the real time frame for concluding the negotiation is around 15 months.

"And we need to start the consent procedure in a quite sensible moment.

"If it is a few months before the European elections, you know how politicians are sensitive ... just before elections.

"So it will be absolutely key that parliament is taken on board from day one of the negotiations, otherwise it will be very difficult to have a green light at the end of the consent procedures." 

In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Verhofstadt said Donald Trump was one of the three biggest threats to the EU, alongside Russian aggression and radical Islamist terrorism.

"Trump spoke very favourably of the fact that also other countries will want to break away from the European Union and that he hoped for a disintegration of the European Union," he said.

Ahead of French and Dutch elections this year in which far-right parties headed by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders respectively are expected to do well, Mr Verhofstadt attacked nationalist ideology, warning that it has led to the slaughter of millions of Europeans in the world wars and beyond.

"Twenty million people have died because of nationalism in Europe," he told the central London audience.

"There is not one family living on the continent and certainly also not in Britain who has no grandfather, grandmother, member of their family, who was not a victim of these stupidities and of these atrocities at the end of the 19th and the whole 20th century.

"So putting your political thinking and your future organisation of Europe on nationalist ideas is the most stupid thing that you can do.

"It's playing with fire knowing what it has created in the past."