Sour taste of Brexit talks on citizens’ rights shows there is work to do – The Guardian

Sour taste of Brexit talks on citizens’ rights shows there is work to do – The Guardian

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Of the many thorny challenges standing between Britain and the EU exit door, providing rescue for citizens was meant to be the least prickly one to deal with. Within days of last year’s shock referendum result, almost all politicians agreed that the people who had built their lives on the promise of an open border should not find themselves stranded when it slammed shut.

There can be few better indications of how much work remain to be done by Brexit negotiators than the lukewarm reaction to a UK proposal on citizens’ rights that finally provides some of this security. No one would argue that the offer is ideal. Critics point to the absence of many of the rights currently enjoyed by all EU citizens. But perhaps the most glaring issue is the absence of trust.

In the year that it took to produce the proposal, millions of lives have been made more stressful by what may soon prove to be pointless uncertainty. A year of sleepless nights and worrying over whether paperwork was in order will now be replaced by a scramble to provide different documents as citizens try to make sure they do not slip between the remaining gaps.

It in this context, the outstanding EU demand that all new rights are protected by the European court of justice speaks volumes about the bad faith now infecting all aspects of this tortuous divorce process. For the British, this is a red line no sovereign nation can cross. For the Europeans, the need to ask at all is a sign of how little confidence they have in the goodwill of their neighbours.

With luck, this particular bout of Brexit bitterness can be fudged. An arbitration process that bridges the gap between UK and EU law could even serve as a template for other international agreements, such as on trade, where it will be required even more urgently. But as a taste of things to come, the sour flavour of citizens’ rights talks will be hard to forget.

The British have already had to swallow a more cumbersome system that neither solves wider immigration challenges nor provides much future hope for employers. Europeans are being asked to go into talks over giving up other cherished freedoms knowing that everything is ultimately just transactional as far as the other side is concerned.

Compromise cannot be avoided, however, if the UK government is to move forward again now that it has a parliamentary majority. Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist party crucially provides their backing for Brexit legislation as well as more basic “confidence and supply” foundations. Hard Brexit is at least viable.

But if the House of Commons is going to have any Brexit legislation on which to vote, the government must first find a way of talking to Europeans that neither kowtows nor instantly gets their backs up. It also needs to find a way of selling compromise to fractious backbenchers on either side of the Brexit divide. A working majority of 13 is perhaps enough to avoid a complete collapse of EU negotiations, but rebellions will still come thick and fast if talks over the divorce settlement and trade go as badly as the ones over timing and citizens rights.

After a dreadful first week, Theresa May’s wobbly Brexit train is back on track. Whether it can leave the station and reach its destination depends on making sure that future “generous” offers are viewed as such rather than a grudging, slow retreat.

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