The Prime Minister revealed her proposal at the first meeting of European heads of government since the general election, as senior EU figures talked up the prospect of the UK changing its mind on Brexit amid political uncertainty in Britain.
Under Mrs May’s plans, more than three million EU nationals living in the UK who arrived before the referendum a year ago today would have their current rights to live and work in Britain guaranteed.
They would also continue to have full access to pensions, healthcare and education under the terms set out in EU treaties under a new “settled status” created by the government.
It means no-one from an EU member state currently living in Britain legally will be forced to leave after Brexit. However, Mrs May is resisting EU demands that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Strasbourg should be guarantor of those rights.
EU citizens coming to the UK after the Brexit process was formally started with the triggering of Article 50 on 29 March also face further uncertainty, as a cut-off date for new arrivals during the negotiation phase has not been set.
Mrs May told fellow leaders at a dinner in Brussels: “The UK’s position represents a fair and serious offer and one aimed at giving as much certainty as possible to citizens who have settled in the UK, building careers and lives and contributing so much to our society.”
But she added: “The commitment that we make to EU citizens will be enshrined in UK law and will be enforced through our highly respected courts.”
A senior British official later said: “We have been clear on the ECJ that we are taking back control of our own laws.”
The issue of the cut-off and the jurisdiction of the ECJ are likely to be the only aspects of the plan that are subject to negotiation when Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier next meet. The first monthly talks between the pair took place on Monday.
Mrs May has also promised that Home Office systems will be streamlined, doing away with the 85-page permanent residency application form which has been the subject of loud complaints from EU citizens.
Downing Street sources had earlier said the Prime Minister would be making a “big, generous offer”. The Prime Minister was due to set out her plan to fellow EU leaders at dinner before allowing them to discuss it without her over coffee.
The UK government had come under pressure to ensure British citizens living in the EU have their right to free movement protected, so that they are not “landlocked” in the country of their residence after Brexit.
Pressure groups have demanded that the Prime Minister mirror the proposal from the EU, which would allow all EU nationals and British citizens affected by Brexit to keep their current rights under EU treaties.
In addition to the more than three million EU citizens living in the UK, more than one million Britons live on the continent. EU sources were quoted as saying they want to ensure it is “as if Brexit never happened” for those at risk, with access to pensions, healthcare and education preserved for them and their children.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon will on Friday call for free movement of people to preserved after Brexit in order to avoid damaging a rural economy heavily reliant on migrant labour.
Speaking at the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, the First Minister is expected to say: “The UK government placed a great deal of emphasis on restricting freedom of movement. That seems to be the key reason why it is not pursuing single market membership.
“But Scottish agriculture, and Scotland more generally, has benefitted enormously from freedom of movement. So as things stand, there is still a real danger that the UK government will abandon something which is good for Scotland – membership of the single market – in order to restrict something else which is good for Scotland – freedom of movement.”
Arriving at the summit in Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May was warned that Brexit was not the priority for the remaining 27 members of the bloc in the week that talks between the UK and the EU finally got under way.
German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that building a future for the remaining 27 members took precedence over speaking with Britain about its exit.
And French president Emmanuel Macron said he preferred to talk about Europe’s ambitions and plans than get involved in “discussions lasting days and nights on its dismantling”.
European Council president Donald Tusk voiced his hope that the UK might change its mind and stay in the EU.
Quoting John Lennon, he said: “The European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
Mr Macron repeated previous comments that the door remains open for a U-turn on Brexit, but warned that would become more difficult the longer talks between Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU negotiator Michel Barnier continue. “The door is open until the moment you walk through it. It’s not up to me to say it’s closed,” he said.