Brexit: 'serious risk' EU will fail to protect UK citizens, says Gove
The British government has said there is “a serious risk” that the European Union will fail to meet its duties to protect the rights of UK nationals living in the bloc, in the latest sign of tensions over Brexit.
In a letter to the European commission, Michael Gove said British residents living in the EU had raised concerns, while the coronavirus pandemic had diverted the attention of many governments from implementing the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which is intended to protect the rights of an estimated 1.2 million British nationals in the EU and 3.5 million Europeans in the UK.
There is “a serious risk that the EU will not fulfil its obligations under the withdrawal agreement by the time the transition period ends on 31 December 2020”, said Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
He added that the government was “already seeing several instances of misapplication of the withdrawal agreement”, which, although “localised incidents”, made it harder for British nationals to exercise their rights.
The letter comes at a tense moment in EU-UK relations, with both sides expected to report later on the latest round of talks, which conclude on Friday morning.
One of the government’s criticisms is the lack of official campaigns in EU member states to raise awareness about new requirements for UK nationals – a stipulation under the treaty.
France and Spain, home to large numbers of UK migrant workers and retired people, are deemed not to have done anything proactive to raise awareness among British residents.
The Czech Republic and Hungary have published information that is thought to be confusing or out-of-date, without translation into English. In contrast – the government says – information on the settlement scheme for EU nationals in the UK is available in other EU languages.
In Austria and Slovenia the government is concerned British nationals have only six or seven months to secure their rights, whereas EU nationals in the UK have 27 months.
Other EU member states, such as Malta, Cyprus and Slovakia, are faulted for relying on face-to-face meetings with local officials, rather than offering people the option to secure their status online.
Gove complains that some countries have still not provided detail on what their application processes will entail.
The government is also concerned about limited attention to vulnerable UK citizens, with Gove stating that member states have not shared information about help for elderly, hard-to-reach or other vulnerable citizens, adding that “in many cases there appears to be none”.
In contrast the government says the UK has given £9m to help community organisations support vulnerable EU nationals, with a further £8m due in 2020-21. It also reports £3m earmarked to help support British nationals in the EU.
Gove represents the government in the Joint Committee, an EU-UK group set up to monitor compliance and implement the Brexit withdrawal treaty, which came into force when the UK left the EU on 31 January. The letter is addressed to his opposite number, the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
While EU governments are responsible for protecting citizens’ rights, the government has called on the commission – the ultimate enforcer of EU law – to step in.
The letter echoes some complaints made by European politicians over the treatment of EU nationals in the UK. The government revealed last month it had received 3.4m applications from people seeking to stay in the EU through the settled status scheme.