Prime Minister Theresa May has issued a direct message to three million EU citizens living in Britain, promising she will make it as easy as possible for them to stay after Brexit.
In an open letter posted on her Facebook page and mailed to 100,000 EU nationals, Mrs May said the Government and Brussels are “in touching distance” of a deal on citizens’ rights and promised to involve EU expats in the design of a “streamlined” digital process for registering to remain.
And she repeated her message that “EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay”.
The offer comes as Mrs May prepares for disappointment at a European Council summit where leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states will agree that it is too early to begin formal negotiations on a future trade relationship, as Britain had hoped.
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Addressing the 27 leaders over dinner in Brussels on Thursday, the PM will urge them at least to begin preparatory talks among themselves about the transition to a future relationship, so they are ready to begin negotiations “as soon as possible”.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn will also travel to the Belgian capital to accuse Mrs May of “bungling” the withdrawal process and declare that Labour “stands ready to take up responsibility for the Brexit negotiations”.
The Labour leader will meet three EU prime ministers, as well as chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and European Parliament president Antonio Tajani.
Mrs May received a boost on Wednesday, as Council president Donald Tusk declared he will recommend that the EU27 begin “internal preparations for talks on the transition and the future relationship” which could begin as early as the next scheduled summit in December.
But Mr Tusk warned that progress in December would require “more concrete proposals from the British side”, in comments reflecting pressure from Brussels for further UK concessions on a so-called “divorce bill” which could reach 60 billion euros (£53bn).
Mrs May’s official spokesman indicated that she will urge the EU27 to concentrate on the future opportunities for co-operation, rather than the details of unstitching Britain’s 44-year membership.
“The Prime Minister will reiterate her commitment to a successful Europe with the UK as a strong and committed partner,” he said.
“She will urge fellow leaders to focus on the shared opportunities and challenges ahead and encourage them to move the conversation on to consideration of the future partnership and implementation period so they are ready to engage in that discussion as soon as possible.”
Mrs May will be excluded from the Friday morning session when Mr Barnier will brief the EU27 that “insufficient progress” has been made in divorce talks to move on to trade negotiations.
While agreeing that the process was not yet sufficiently advanced for trade talks to begin, Mr Tusk said that “promising progress” had been made since Mrs May’s keynote speech in Florence last month, at which she committed Britain to meeting obligations estimated at around £18 billion (20bn euros) incurred as an EU member, as well as following EU rules during any implementation period.
But Mr Corbyn warned of the danger that Britain may crash out of the EU without a deal: “As the Government’s splits and Brexit bungling become ever more damaging, Labour stands ready to take up responsibility for the Brexit negotiations.
“A no-deal Brexit would be a bad deal for Britain, threatening jobs and living standards. It would also harm our European neighbours. That’s why it’s in all our interests to increase the pressure for real progress in the current talks and move on to negotiations about our future trading relationship.”
The two-day summit has been moved out of the glitzy Europa Building, opened last year after a £300 million renovation and nicknamed “the Space Egg”, to the less glamorous Justus Lipsius building next door, after toxic fumes from drains left staff ill.
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In her open letter, Mrs May announced that representatives of EU nationals will be invited to sit on a new User Group, meeting regularly to iron out any problems with the process of applying for the new “settled status” to remain in the UK.
The cost of registration will be kept “as low as possible” and it will be made simple to swap permanent residence rights for settled status, she said.
Expats will no longer have to show they have comprehensive sickness insurance.
Britain wants to offer the new status to EU citizens with five years’ residence and is aiming to start registrations at the end of next year.
Mrs May has so far refused to give the three million EU nationals an unconditional right to stay until similar rights are granted to more than one million Britons living on the continent.
Differences remain over EU demands for European Court of Justice jurisdiction over the rights of citizens living in Britain.
In the letter, Mrs May said: “We are in touching distance of agreement.
“I know both sides will consider each other’s proposals for finalising the agreement with an open mind.
“And with flexibility and creativity on both sides, I am confident that we can conclude discussions on citizens’ rights in the coming weeks.”
She added: “We want people to stay and we want families to stay together.
“We hugely value the contributions that EU nationals make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the UK. And I know that member states value equally UK nationals living in their communities.
“I hope that these reassurances, alongside those made by both the UK and the European Commission last week, will provide further helpful certainty to the four million people who were understandably anxious about what Brexit would mean for their futures.”
Four Tory former cabinet ministers, ex-chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby, Owen Paterson, John Redwood and Peter Lilley, called on Mrs May to walk away from talks with no deal if the EU continues to refuse to discuss trade.
In a letter organised by the Leave Means Leave campaign also signed by Labour MP Kate Hoey, Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin and others, they said the UK should “concentrate our resources on resolving administrative issues” ahead of leaving with no deal in March 2019.
Operating on World Trade Organisation rules would help Britain “crystallise the economic opportunities” of Brexit, give businesses “absolute certainty” about the future and sever ties with Brussels regulations which “take opportunities off the table”, they said.
A spokesman for Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said more work needs to be done in the Brexit talks on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding the return of any border on the island.
It is understood some progress has been made on preserving the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area.
The spokesman said the Taoiseach will continue to strive for the best possible outcome for Ireland by using every opportunity to engage with other leaders and emphasise the importance of the issues at stake for Ireland.