No “cut-off date” for EU
nationals to register their right to live in Britain
is expected to be announced until negotiations on reciprocal rights of Britons living in other EU countries are concluded, government sources have indicated.
Downing Street rejected taking unilateral action before a deal on residency rights is secured – meaning it is highly unlikely that the day Theresa May formally triggers Brexit – expected on or around 15 March – will be used as the key cut-off date.
No 10 underlined on Monday that the cut-off date for EU nationals in Britain would instead be a key part of the negotiations over residency rights with the EU27.
With up to 3 million EU nationals living in Britain, the Home Office is overhauling its residency application process, with senior officials describing it as moving from a previously “niche activity to a mainstream programme”. More than 200,000 residency applications were decided in 2016 and an online system is being phased in to gear up to a much bigger operation.
Whitehall sources also poured cold water on speculations that the prime minister was poised to announce the end of free movement for EU nationals who arrive in Britain after article 50 is triggered next month, by imposing a new visa regime and restricting their access to benefits.
Differing views are believed to have been aired at a meeting of the Brexit cabinet committee last Thursday where options on the future of EU nationals in Britain and on future EU immigration policy were outlined. Briefings after the meeting sparked detailed speculation about the options being considered.
The Sunday Times suggested one option was to introduce five-year visas for EU citizens coming to work in key sectors of the economy but which would ban them from claiming benefits.
It also suggested that the government’s migration advisory committee would be asked to decide a new list of shortage occupations open to EU migrants, as is the case for non-EU skilled labour.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, did not rule out such an option on Sunday but made clear that it was only one of a range of options being considered by ministers. She said a consultation on the new immigration policy would be held over the summer.
On Monday, a Downing Street spokesman said May was clear that control of immigration was one of the main purposes of Brexit but stressed this would begin after the article 50 negotiating period is over.
Asked whether a potential cut-off date would be a matter for the government or form part of negotiations with the EU, the spokesman said: “In terms of the issue of EU citizens’ rights in the UK, the prime minister has been clear on wanting that to be an issue addressed as a priority once the negotiations with the other members states get under way.”
The media speculation prompted a firm response from Brussels
, where one senior EU diplomat said: “As long a the UK is a member, it keeps its rights and obligations. The commission believes it is desirable for the date on which that changes to be the date the UK leaves.”
It is understood that this position was agreed at a technical meeting last week between the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and representatives of the other EU member states, although a commission spokesman declined to comment.
Asked about May’s intentions, the European commission’s chief spokesman said the EU would lay out its position once article 50 was triggered. He said: “We saw reports based on sources but we are expecting a letter [from May].”
The absence of a national population register or identity card scheme in Britain has prompted concerns in the European parliament about whether the Home Office has the capacity to establish a robust register of all EU citizens in Britain, including their date of arrival and legal rights to remain. The Home Office, however, does manage to issue 6.8m passports each year to British citizens.