The European Commission has rebuffed a call by MPs for an agreement with the UK to ensure that the rights of expats are protected across Europe in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
A proposal from Conservative backbencher Alberto Costa for a UK/EU commitment to preserve the citizens’ rights provisions in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, even if the deal as a whole is rejected, was passed without opposition by the House of Commons on Wednesday.
But a Commission spokeswoman said in response that the EU was not willing to conclude “mini-deals” with the UK outside the framework of the main Withdrawal Agreement.
The Agreement includes reciprocal commitments to maintain the rights of an estimated 3.5 million EU nationals in the UK and 1.5 million Britons on the continent to live and work in their chosen homes following Brexit.
The Prime Minister has pledged to honour this commitment for EU expats in Britain even if her deal fails. But there has been no similar promise from the EU as a whole, which has left it to individual member states to decide how they will act in a no-deal scenario.
Asked whether the EU was ready to strike an agreement of the kind proposed by Mr Costa, Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told a Brussels press conference: “We will not negotiate mini-deals because negotiating such mini-deals outside the Withdrawal Agreement would imply that the negotiations have failed.”
Ms Andreeva said that the best way to protect the continuing rights of expat citizens was “through the Withdrawal Agreement”.
The Commission welcomed the UK’s indication of its intention to preserve EU nationals’ rights if no deal is concluded and “expects the assurance to be formalised soon so that citizens can rely on it”, she said.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington made clear in the Commons on Wednesday that the Government did not expect the EU as a whole to be able to strike a Europe-wide agreement with the UK on citizens’ rights.
Downing Street said on Thursday that, following Parliament’s approval of the Costa amendment, the UK would “speak to the Commission to seek clarification of the EU’s position on ring-fencing the citizens’ rights section of the Withdrawal Agreement”.
Technical talks were continuing between UK and EU officials in Brussels on London’s request for legally-binding changes to the Agreement to ensure that its controversial backstop mechanism cannot become permanent.
Mrs May has promised to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back to the Commons for a “meaningful vote” by March 12, although there is speculation in Westminster that the showdown could come as soon as next week.
The PM’s official spokesman confirmed that the date of the vote could be any time up to March 12, but told reporters: “There remains a significant amount of work still to do.”