BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU citizens should be able to secure full UK residence rights during the two-year transition period after Britain leaves the bloc, envoys from the other 27 member states said on Wednesday, in a move sure to annoy Brexit supporters.
Curbing immigration was a key reason why Britons voted by 52 percent to 48 percent in the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU, following a large influx of EU citizens into the country, especially from poorer countries in eastern Europe.
Britain formally exits the EU at midnight on March 29, 2019, but is now preparing to negotiate with the EU the terms of a two-year transition period after that date to help limit the disruption Brexit entails for businesses and citizens.
The ambassadors of the other 27 EU states agreed with the executive European Commission on Wednesday that EU citizens’ residence rights should continue after Brexit because Britain will still be bound by all EU laws during the transition phase.
The envoys were discussing the details of a new mandate for the Commission, which will negotiate on the EU’s behalf on the transition period and a new trading relationship with the UK.
A joint EU-UK report published in December said the cut-off date - known as “the specified date” - for EU citizens’ eligibility to secure UK residence should be March 29, 2019, but it left room for “appropriate adaptation”.
The EU envoys endorsed a note to the bloc’s leaders from the Commission that said: “The specified date should... be defined not as the date of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, but as that of the end of the transitional period.”
The envoys also broadly supported the possibility of extending the transition period beyond two years if - as many expect - more time is needed to negotiate a new free trade agreement with Britain.
Diplomats said the EU position on citizens’ rights was less politically controversial now because immigration was no longer the hot-button issue it was at the time of the referendum.
“If anything, today, there’s a big exodus from the UK. Many Poles are leaving. Many British pensioners are leaving for the Spanish sun to become retirees there while they still can. If anything, I’d say the UK has a problem with attracting workers today,” one EU diplomat said.
But some Brexit supporters in Britain disagreed.
“Free movement must end when we leave on 29th March, 2019. Otherwise we will not have taken back control in the way demanded by the referendum result,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British Conservative lawmaker and prominent eurosceptic.
The negotiating mandate for the talks on the transition period and a future trade deal are to be finalised by the end of January, with negotiations between Brussels and London to start in March.
Additional reporting by William James in London; Editing by Gareth Jones