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BRUSSELS, June 22 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May set out what she called a "fair deal" for EU citizens living in Britain on Thursday, saying in her first test of negotiating strength that she did not want anyone to have to leave because of Brexit or to split up families.
Outlining the five main principles of her "fair and serious offer", May told other EU leaders at a summit in Brussels that she wanted to offer certainty to EU citizens about their future in Britain, again using a softer tone in her approach to Brexit.
But while her five principles go some way to ease concerns of the roughly 3 million EU nationals in Britain, their leaders will no doubt want to see more detail and may query the lack of a firm cut-off date for any changes to immigration rules - the EU is insisting on no changes until Britain leaves in 2019.
And her reduced stature, after losing her parliamentary majority in a June 8 election, among leaders who have made clear that they are more concerned about the future of the European Union than Britain's departure, could see her on the back foot.
"The prime minister tonight set out details of the rights and status EU citizens in the UK will enjoy after Brexit - vowing to give them reassurance, and to make them a priority in negotiations," a senior British government source said.
"The PM said the UK's position represented a fair and serious offer – and one aimed at giving as much certainty as possible to citizens who have settled in the UK, building careers and lives, and contributing so much to our society."
It was her first foray into the Brexit talks, one which was timed to coincide with coffee at the end of dinner by EU leaders who have warned the British prime minister not to use Council summits as a negotiating chamber for Britain's departure.
May outlined the plan many in her party who campaigned for Brexit hope will reduce the flow of migrants to Britain, then she left. The others went on to discuss Britain's departure from the European Union without her.
May told leaders she wanted to offer certainty by saying no EU citizens in Britain lawfully would be asked to leave at the time of Brexit, and that all EU citizens lawfully in the country at the point of Brexit would be able to regularise their status.
She would also offer any EU citizen resident for five years - at some cut-off date - the opportunity to get settled status, a new category which would treat them as if they were British citizens for healthcare, education, benefits and pensions.
Those who by then had less than five years residency would be allowed to build up to five years to obtain that status. The government will also offer a grace period of most likely up to two years to allow people to regularise their status so that "no one will face a cliff edge", she said.
The 85-page residency form, which many struggled to fill in after Britain voted to leave the European Union a year ago on Friday, will be replaced by a more streamlined system, "using digital tools to register people in a light-touch way".
In a nod to the million or more Britons living on the continent, she said that: "Reciprocity was, of course, vital."
But, even with the softer tone and expressed eagerness to sort out one of the relatively easy problems that the Brexit talks will have to unpick, there were bound to be sticking points.
EU leaders argue that while Britain is in the bloc it must adhere to its rules. May offered a window in which to set the cut-off which can be debated with Brussels - no earlier than her confirmation of withdrawal three months ago and no later than Brexit, due on March 30, 2019, two years after it was triggered.
There would be no changes until the latter date: "All EU citizens currently (in Britain) will have their rights protected under EU law until the date we leave the EU," the source said.
Other non-negotiables were the role of the European Court of Justice - May has repeatedly said that "we're taking back control of our own rules" and, the source said, EU citizens could rely on the protection of "our highly respected courts".
The EU wants their citizens' rights after Brexit enforceable in their European court in Luxembourg.
May's aides declined to add detail, saying the government would present a paper to parliament on Monday that would explore the implications of the changes for family members from non-EU states and marriages of people of different nationality.
The EU has insisted that sweeping political guarantees are worth little without detailed legal agreements which tackle the complex diversity of people's family situations.
"Both sides should seek to agree terms and give certainty as early as possible in the talks," May said. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Louise Ireland)