EU citizens living in the UK have been given fresh hope of guaranteed rights under Brexit after a new cross-party move in Parliament to protect them.
The prospect of a Government defeat on the issue loomed closer as Tory peer Lord Bowness, former diplomat Lord Hannay and the Liberal Democrats decided to support a new Labour amendment to the Brexit bill going through the House of Lords.
In a bid to reassure the three million Europeans living in Britain, the amendment grants unilateral rights to both citizens of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) once the UK has quit the 27-nation bloc in 2019.
The issue is set to be a key flashpoint when the Lords next debates the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, with a crunch vote possible either at Committee Stage next week or at Report Stage next month.
The threat of defeat came amid claims ministers were preparing to give further reassurance that Parliament would have a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final Brexit deal, once it has been hammered out with Brussels and Britain.
Theresa May has insisted that she wants EU nationals living in the UK to keep all their current rights after Brexit, and Brexit Secretary David Davis has said he is hopeful a deal can be done early in the two-year negotiation process that is due to start in April.
The UK is keen to get reciprocal rights for British ex-pats living in Spain and elsewhere on the Continent.
But several Tory MPs as well as a majority of peers worry that European citizens are being used as ‘bargaining chips’ as the UK seeks a new trade deal with the EU.
Conservative backbencher Alberto Costa, whose parents are Italian migrants, made an emotional plea to the PM last November to help them and millions of others worried they would be kicked out of the UK.
Britain’s EU nationals, from Poles to French citizens, have been worried that they could be kicked out of Britain or lose key rights once Brexit happens.
On Monday, hundreds of families turned out to demonstrate outside Parliament ahead of the start of the Lords stages of the Brexit bill, which formally triggers the Article 50 process of quitting the EU.
The Prime Minister has said she wants to start the process by the end of March at the latest.
Under the amendment, ministers would write into law a guarantee that EU and EEA citizens are ‘not disadvantaged’ in the right to live and work in the UK.
With hundreds of Labour and Lib Dem peers, the House of Lords has an anti-Tory majority and the Government is braced for defeats on both the EU citizens issue and on a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal.
The Sun reported on Thursday that ministers have held secret talks about fending off a rebellion over the vote for Parliament.
Government worries were sparked by former Supreme Court judge Lord Hope on Monday, who said the court’s decision meant Parliament had to have the final say.
“If we don’t either they will force us, or the courts will. That is now becoming clear,” one Cabinet minister told the paper.
But it is currently unclear whether Lords leader Baroness Evans will try to give stronger verbal reassurance to peers and MPs that they will get a proper vote on the final Brexit deal - or if she will write that promise into legislation.
Labour has another amendment seeking just such a written guarantee that Parliament will get a vote on the eventual ‘divorce and trade’ package agreed by May and the other 27 EU states.
Labour’s shadow Lords leader Baroness Smith told HuffPost UK: “Reports that the government is considering a serious concession on parliamentary engagement and a vote on the negotiations are welcome.
“What happens next is a pivotal moment and will determine the tone and trust in the weeks, months and years to come on this issue. We believe we would win that vote. The government of course could try to overturn it in the Commons.
“But rather than Ministers just holding to the line that they won’t amend the bill but will make a statement on the record, it would be a positive and mature signal for future progress of legislation if having accepted the principle they write this into the bill.”