On Saturday, April 28, the Special European Council (Article 50) adopted the guidelines for the Brexit negotiations. President Donald Tusk underlined 'the outstanding unity of all the 27 leaders on the guidelines':
'There is unanimous support from all the 27 member states and the EU institutions, giving [the EU] a strong political mandate for these negotiations'.
The President of the French Republic François Hollande stressed that the biggest challenge for the EU in the Special Council and forthcoming negotiations was unity.
Judging from what was achieved in this Council, and how rapidly and effortlessly it was achieved, it seems the EU is meeting this challenge very successfully so far.
Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker brought the point home on Twitter:
Later on in the press conference, Juncker reiterated he was impressed with the unity among the 27. 'Contrary to what one may believe, it is not merely superficial', he noticed. 'It is not a façade. It is a genuine common ambition'.
The Brexit guidelines agreed revolve around a phased approach to the forthcoming negotiations, with the first phase of the negotiations aiming to:
In agreeing core principles, the EU-27:
reiterated their wish to have the UK as a close partner
reiterated that any future deal will need to be based on a balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field
stressed that the integrity of the single market must be preserved, which means the four freedoms are indivisible and excludes any cherry-picking
stated that a non-member cannot enjoy the same rights and benefits as a member
The issue of the rights of citizens from the EU-27 in the UK, and those of British people in the EU, emerged as the key focus on the Special European Council. Citizens were 'priority number one', said Tusk at the press conference following agreement of the guidelines (the other key priorities involve reaching a single financial settlement and supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland).
'We must protect the rights of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK', noted Tusk; 'the rights they have today, they should continue to enjoy after Brexit'.
It also emerged that the European Commission, under Michel Barnier's leadership, has already drafted a 'detailed and precise list' of citizens' rights, which could be adopted immediately, if the UK were prepared to sign it. This is breaking down the question of EU citizens' rights into 25 different questions. This was indicative of the complexity of the matter, said Juncker, predicting that the UK will not to sign the document at this stage and that it will therefore take 'a huge amount of time' to settle this issue.
This is what the guidelines say on EU citizens' rights:
The right for every EU citizen, and of his or her family members, to live, to work or to study in any EU Member State is a fundamental aspect of the European Union. Along with other rights provided under EU law, it has shaped the lives and choices of millions of people. Agreeing reciprocal guarantees to safeguard the status and rights derived from EU law at the date of withdrawal of EU and UK citizens, and their families, affected by the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the Union will be the first priority for the negotiations. Such guarantees must be effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive, including the right to acquire permanent residence after a continuous period of five years of legal residence. Citizens should be able to exercise their rights through smooth and simple administrative procedures.
Mr Tusk summarised these guidelines by categorically stating: 'We need real guarantees for our people to live, work and study in the UK'.
In the press conference after the end of the Council, President Tusk commented:
Let me now focus on our priority number one, namely citizens, whose rights we want to respect and secure in the first place. Today's discussion made clear that when it comes to reaching a decision on citizens' rights, not only speed is of the essence - but above all, quality, as so many people's lives depend on it. We are talking about four and a half million people: Europeans residing in the UK, and Britons living on the continent. Over the past weeks, we have repeatedly heard from our British friends - also during my visit in London - that they are ready to agree on this issue quickly. But I would like to state very clearly that we need real guarantees for our people to live, work and study in the UK, and the same goes for the British. The Commission has prepared a full list of rights and benefits that we want to guarantee for those affected by Brexit. In order to achieve sufficient progress, we need a serious British response. I want to assure you that as soon as the UK offers real guarantees for our citizens, we will find a solution rapidly.
President Juncker added that this was not simply a matter of establishing a few principles, it was a question of putting in place the necessary guarantees. Many EU citizens had been 'very hard hit indeed by the vote on Brexit', he pointed out. The problem often took 'tragic dimensions'.
EU's demands on EU citizens' rights were received with a lot of scepticism, if not anger, in the UK. The Sunday Telegraph's view was that these were among the EU's hardest demands, along with a requirement for the UK to pay a £50 billion Brexit bill, pointing out that there was particular concern with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as an arbitration court for these matters. It is interesting that the issue of ECJ jurisdiction does not seem to have attracted any attention from the part of European leaders, but is obviously a very sensitive issue for the UK.
Furthermore, according to the Telegraph, UK officials conceded that, if the UK accepted the EU's demands on EU citizens' rights, there would be 'a situation where EU nationals in the UK have more rights - say on appealing against immigration decisions on third country spouses - than are enjoyed by British citizens'.
The President of the European Parliament, Antonion Tajani, pointed out that there was political agreement between the EU and the UK, and that Theresa May had reassured him the UK would recognise EU citizens' rights. He then went on to emphasise that it was needed, however, to work on implementation of this 'political agreement in principle'.
For the nearly four-and-a-half million people immediately affected by Brexit - citizens in the UK from the EU27, and British people in the EU - the position taken by the EU in this Special EU Council, and the spirit in which this happened, offers real promise. It sends out a very strong message to Theresa May's Government that safeguarding the rights of EU citizens affected by Brexit is a non-negotiable.