Theresa May has signalled that new EU migrants coming to the UK after Brexit should not expect to be granted full citizens’ rights.
The Prime Minister said those who arrived after March 2019 would have to be treated differently from their predecessors “because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU”.
May has already stressed that three million European nationals currently living in the country will be guaranteed voting and residency rights once Britain formally quits the 28-nation bloc.
But critics - including former Labour minister Lord Adonis - dubbed the move a “big step back for civilised European conduct”, asking what the government will do if the EU starts “mistreating” British citizens.
The PM’s firm line on new migrants arriving after March 2019 appeared to be aimed at reassuring Eurosceptic MPs who have been increasingly uneasy about the prospect of a “no-change” Brexit.
Some campaigners have claimed that up to two million migrants could head to the UK during the two-year transition period before the country formally severs its existing ties with the EU.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier last week sparked Tory claims that he wanted to unpick parts of a deal agreed with May late last year.
Instead of ending EU citizens’ rights to vote or reside in Britain after the spring of next year, Brussels now says it wants full protections to be extended to the end of 2020, its own deadline for the end of the transition period.
Asked if the EU had “torn up” the deal on citizens’ rights she thought she had agreed in December, May replied: “No.”
“It was right that we have made an agreement that ensured they [new EU migrants] could continue their life in the way they had wanted to,” she told reporters on her China trip.
“Now for those who come after March 2019, that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU.
“What we have seen is guidelines in relation to the negotiations on the implementation period that are coming up but when we agreed the citizens’ rights deal in December we did so on the basis that people who had come to the UK when we were a member of the EU had set up certain expectations they made a life choice.”
A Downing Street official said May had already made clear that citizens’ rights were a separate issue from that of migration and free movement.
People will be free to work and live in the UK during the two-year transition period after 2019, but they will be required to join a registration scheme.
However, the PM felt the “principle” of differential treatment between those who arrived before and after Brexit was worth maintaining.
When asked if “hand on heart” she believed in Brexit, the PM also said: “Yes. You know at the time of the referendum I voted Remain but I also said the sky wasn’t going to fall in if we left the EU.
“And as people will see from the economic figures we have seen, actually that has indeed proved to be the case. I believe that outside the EU we can not only project that global Britain but I believe we can see a better future for our economy.”