Theresa May has admitted she was wrong to accuse EU nationals of ‘jumping the queue’ for jobs and rights in the UK.
Following days of criticism, the Prime Minister conceded that she should not have made her remarks to business chiefs last week.
May had shocked the CBI conference when she declared that Brexit would mean that EU citizens “regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said the comment was “disgraceful”, while campaigners for the three million EU citizens in the UK said it could fuel hate crime against them.
Under pressure from the SNP in the Commons on Monday, May said: “I should not have used that language in that speech.”
SNP MP Philippa Whitford told the PM that her remarks had insulted people like her husband, a German national and a doctor who had lived in Britain for more than 30 years.
May replied that she had been trying to point out that the public want a skills-based immigration system that decides if people should enter the country based on the contribution that they can make.
Labour MP Rupa Huq told May that “her crass comments about jumping the queue are a tragedy”.
The PM has made clear that curbing EU migration is central to her Brexit deal, claiming it would bring an “end to free movement, once and for all”.
Jeremy Corbyn last week accused her of ‘dog whistle’ politics by raising the issue, and the ‘3Million’ campaign on behalf of EU citizens accused her of trying to scapegoat those who had spent years living and working in the UK.
The European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt also criticised May at the time.
“EU citizens living, working, contributing to UK communities, didn’t ‘jump the queue’ and neither did UK nationals in Europe,” he said.
“They were exercising rights which provided freedom and opportunities. We will fight to ensure these continue in the future, especially after any transition.”
The Government says it wants the estimated 3.5 million citizens of other EU nations already living in the UK to stay after Brexit but they will have to apply for leave to remain.
The Home Office is expected to finally set out its immigration proposals next week, the second strand of its PR strategy to sell the PM’s deal.
May has previously said that over time EU citizens will be treated the same as those arriving from outside the EU.