On the eve of a crucial Brussels summit, the Prime Minister has appealed directly to EU citizens living in the UK that she wants them and their families to stay after Brexit.
The appeal comes as Jeremy Corbyn redoubles his attack on the Government’s “ever more damaging Brexit bungling” and on a possible “no deal Brexit that would be a bad deal for Britain, threatening jobs and living standards”.
The Labour leader is also on his way to Brussels on Thursday to meet with three EU prime ministers and the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
In a social media post and open letter to three million citizens of EU countries resident in Britain, Theresa May says an agreement on their post-Brexit rights is “in touching distance”.
The Prime Minister tries to reassure them a streamlined process, in which they will have a direct say, will govern arrangements for maintenance of their rights as the UK leaves the EU.
The Government will waive the requirement in EU law that EU citizens have to show they have had comprehensive sickness insurance in order to qualify for permanent residence.
The Home Office will also create a mechanism whereby those citizens with permanent residence can swap that for the new post-Brexit “settled status”.
In addition, the Home Office plans to form “user groups” of EU citizens so they can have a say on these processes.
But in words that could be interpreted as painting the EU27 as the roadblock on citizens rights, Mrs May also writes: “As I travel to Brussels today, I know that many people will be looking to us – the leaders of the 28 nations in the EU – to demonstrate we are putting people first.”
The Prime Minister says “citizens rights are my first priority”, adding: “When we started this process, some accused us of treating EU nationals as bargaining chips.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth.
“I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay.”
While that personal guarantee is an unconditional offer, Downing Street stressed the rest of the package was conditional on a general deal with the EU, and reciprocal rights for UK citizens living in the rest of the EU.
However, the EU has until now shown little desire to separate out individual issues, with key politicians claiming “nothing is settled until everything is settled”.
Some in the EU are likely to see this as a UK gambit to split the EU27 and achieve progress on an issue of particular concern to Baltic and other Eastern European nations, who have many citizens living in Britain.
On Wednesday, Number 10 struggled to answer why, as the Government has suggested of its own departments, EU citizens should not be planning themselves for a failure by MrsMay to reach a Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister also came under pressure from a Brexiteer wing of her party, including four former Cabinet ministers, to walk away from exit negotiations if the EU continues to refuse to discuss the UK’s future trading relationship at the European Council summit this week.
In a letter – signed by Tory grandee Lord Lawson, Conservative and Labour MPs , and leading businessmen – Mrs May is urged to formally declare Britain will assume it will be subject to World Trade Organisation terms with the EU from March 2019, if no breakthrough is reached in Brussels.
On Mrs May’s offer, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake attacked “empty hypocritical words” from the Prime Minister and claimed EU citizens who have waited 15 months to have their rights protected “will be deeply disappointed”.
Mr Brake added it was “despicable” that Mrs May “has the brass neck to deny she has bartered with citizens’ rights”.
A spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister will reiterate commitment to a successful Europe with the UK as a strongly committed partner.
“She will urge fellow leaders to focus on shared opportunities and challenges ahead and encourage them to move the conversation on to consider the future partnership and the implementation period so that they are ready to engage in that discussion as soon as possible”.
The EU27 will consider whether Brexit talks have achieved “sufficient progress” on key divorce issues, their condition for allowing trade talks to begin, after the Prime Minister has left the summit on Friday.
But the language in draft communiques to be discussed by the EU27, prepared before the summit, has hardened at the behest of Berlin and Paris in recent days.