Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

May's 'unilateral guarantees' won't protect UK citizens in Europe

  • Many Brits on the continent have been anxious for two years and a minority are terrified about what no deal would mean for them. (Photo: Paul Lloyd)

UK ministers and leading Brexit supporters have been falling over themselves to claim the moral high ground ever since Theresa May's post-Salzburg speech, in which she seemed to be preparing the ground for a no-deal Brexit by stating unilaterally that the 3.3 million EU citizens would be able to stay in the UK - whatever the outcome of negotiations.

Instead of focussing on ring-fencing the political agreement already reached on citizens' rights, 'the EU-27 must now do the same for our 1.2 million British nationals in Europe' – is the cry that we are currently hearing the most.

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  • There is a potential future pension crisis in the making over UK citizens paying into pensions on the continent (Photo: EUobserver)

However, while I wish that the EU-27 would move faster on aspects of our post-Brexit settlement, the idea that unilateral guarantees by themselves are equivalent to what's been agreed in the (albeit inadequate) draft withdrawal agreement is incorrect.

This is because neither side is in a position to unilaterally guarantee our rights on several important issues.

For example, 80 percent of British people living on the continent are working-age or younger.

Those that are working pay into EU-27 social security systems.

The same is true for EU-27 citizens in the UK, who pay UK national insurance.

Pension problems

Without reciprocal arrangements, they won't know what they will get back from their contributions in future if they have worked in more than one country.

It will put you off staying in that country (especially if you are paying a significant percentage of your salary in state pension contributions) if you don't know that you will get a pension out of it at the end of the day.

The current EU aggregated system allows us to aggregate our contributions in every country we have worked as if we had only worked in one.

This is key as, for example, in different countries there are different vesting periods, so you don't get a pension under national rules unless you work a certain number of years in the country. But under the EU aggregated system all contributions count towards one overall pension pot.

If this doesn't continue, this is a potential future pension crisis in the making.

Secondly, if you pay into local systems, you want to know that you will be treated the same as nationals as far as parental leave, healthcare, benefits etc are concerned.

And a system of mutual recognition of qualifications, also key to working freely as before, needs reciprocal arrangements, given that it depends on cooperation between the bodies in each country that issue them.

So unilateral guarantees are not going to cut it.

Refused to meet

And it's also worth pointing out here that we haven't been able to explain this to Theresa May in person because two years into the process she and her successive Brexit secretaries, David Davis and now Dominic Raab have either ignored or refused our requests for a meeting with them and our sister group 'the3million'.

Furthermore, in her post-Salzburg address May failed to mention her own nationals on the continent, even while she was seeking to reassure EU citizens in the UK.

In contrast, we have met Michel Barnier twice, as well as having frequent contact with his team and Guy Verhofstadt from the European Parliament.

This is why we are urging both the EU-27 and the UK to ring-fence the current withdrawal agreement even in its current imperfect form.

Ring-fencing still won't allow people to carry on with their lives as before - because the current withdrawal agreement doesn't cover several outstanding issues.

For example, in the case of British in Europe, it doesn't include free movement or cross-border working rights which many of us rely on for our families' livelihoods.

Instead, free movement was kicked into the long grass of the future relationship negotiations where it has predictably got stuck because the Northern Irish border issue is proving so intractable.

So we are a far cry from 2016 when Vote Leave and then the UK government promised that we were a top priority and that they would do everything they could to ensure nothing would change for us after Brexit.

Many Brits on the continent have been anxious for two years and a minority are terrified about what no deal would mean for them.

Ringfencing the withdrawal agreement would not make all our problems go away. But even if 'no-deal' is only a possibility, we need it now to give very worried people certainty so they can get on with their lives.

Which is all that any of us ever wanted.

Jane Golding is a British lawyer who lives in Germany and works across the EU. She is also the founder and chair of the campaign group British in Europe

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