Today brings the fourth and final full meeting of 2016 of the European Council in Brussels. I was therefore surprised and disappointed to receive Donald Tusk’s reply to my letter inviting him to table and agree to reciprocal rights for UK citizens living and working in the EU and EU citizens living and working here.
I was surprised at the speed of his response – merely a matter of hours after we in the European Research Group (ERG) had fired across my letter. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, given the small army he has working for him. But I was disappointed both by the tone of the reply and more importantly by the fact that he is still refusing to resolve this important issue at this European Council meeting.
This was an ideal opportunity, and it should not have been wasted. There is no reason not to, and all delay is arbitrary and indefensible.
The reason Mr Tusk gave me for refusing to sort this out can be shortened to: “no negotiation without notification”. In other words, unless and until Article 50 is formally triggered, he refuses to put this issue on the table. But this misses the obvious. We have voted to leave and we are going to trigger Article 50, and one way or another by the end of March (don’t get me started on the Supreme Court case).
It also misses the reality that individual member states are already discussing this very issue. There is significant pressure on politicians right across Europe to ensure that this matter is resolved quickly. See, for example, recent reports from France and Malta, let alone Poland, where there are nearly 900,000 Polish citizens and workers whose rights are up in the air.
As was reported in this country, as many as 20 countries are thought already to have agreed this issue in principle, and only “a few” remained. As I said at PMQs the other week, I congratulate our Prime Minister Theresa May for getting started so quickly and so successfully. But it’s long past time for Donald Tusk to stop being so bloody-minded and to start taking the moral high ground by following suit.
The Prime Minister is entirely right to want to settle this issue, now and in a humane fashion. This is an area where there has been widespread agreement in Westminster, between Leavers and Remainers (should such distinctions now still be necessary) and right across the party political divide. It seems that Westminster gets it, but the Brussels bureaucracy doesn’t. Britain’s willing to talk now: why isn’t Brussels? As hinted at in Tusk’s response to ERG’s letter, process appears to be more important than people.
There are still details that will need to be resolved: such as the date from which these reciprocal arrangements should start (pick any of 23rd June; the day we trigger Article 50; and the day we leave – my preference is the middle one). There is also the question of what happens thereafter, but with respect that will be for us as an independent and sovereign nation to determine, having left and taken back control of our immigration policy.
It’s just not fair to use real people, flesh and blood as bargaining chips and at this final meeting before Christmas, it’s time for Mr Tusk to do the right thing, and put people’s minds at ease. But once again it looks like another opportunity will be spectacularly missed by the bureaucratic elites in Brussels. They are remarkably resistant to learning their lesson. But this shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing by both Europeans and Britons alike.