Unions demand that rights must be maintained after Brexit

Written By: Kate Holman
Published: April 7, 2017 Last modified: April 14, 2017

EU citizens living in the UK, and their British counterparts in other Member States, were left as uncertain as ever about their future at the end of last week’s intense Brexit activity in Brussels.

The European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt was one of numerous voices demanding rapid clarity. “For us, it is an absolute priority to settle citizens’ rights as soon as possible. It needs to be the first issue to be tackled in the negotiations. Citizens should not become bargaining chips”, he insisted.

The European Council, representing the 27 Member State governments, which will be “in the driving seat” throughout the talks, also wanted to see the ‘right to stay’ guaranteed as early as possible. This, together with Ireland’s internal border and settling the UK’s debt to the EU, will be top of the negotiating agenda.

And yet a senior EU official discounted the possibility of an interim agreement that would clear up the insecurity. The EU continues to insist that nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed – and that is expected to take at least two years. And furthermore, it’s complicated. Will the right to stay include partners, dependents? Will they have access to social benefits and services. And what about people who exercise their right to free movement from now until the
UK leaves?

The delivery of Theresa May’s long-awaited letter triggering Article 50 of the EU Treaty, in Brussels on Wednesday March 29, was followed two days later by the European Council’s draft negotiating guidelines. Council President Donald Tusk waved the British Prime Minister’s letter in front of journalists at a brief press conference before walking out with the words: “We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.” On Wednesday morning, he tweeted ironically: “After nine months the UK has delivered.”

Later his mood was more sombre. “There’s no reason to pretend this is a happy day, neither in Brussels, nor in London,” he said, describing the negotiating process ahead as “damage control”, with “nothing to win” for either side.

Other reactions were varied. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel promised a “constructive attitude” to negotiations, pointing out that Belgium has some of the closest economic ties with the UK.

The European Socialists and Democrats again condemned the “false promises of the Brexiteers’ propaganda”, while the European Green Party called for “all options to be explored to ensure Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar can retain their membership of the EU”. Few anticipated that the vexed question of Gibraltar, covered in a single paragraph at the very end of the Council guidelines, would turn within days into a major diplomatic row between the UK and Spain.

For trade unions on both sides of the English Channel, it was a day to reiterate their demand that workers’ rights must not be eroded. “We want a level playing field of workplace rights across the whole of Europe, including Britain,” declared TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “We also want a guarantee that we won’t gradually become second class citizens off the coast of Europe.”

The European Trade Union Confederation welcomed an EU commitment to avoid social dumping in any future UK/ EU trade deal, but insisted that workers must not be “held hostage” in the meantime. “Workers must not be left in the unacceptable situation of not knowing where they will stand if they lose or leave their job or retire after March 2019,” said General Secretary Luca Visentini. The ETUC also called for transparency in the negotiations. The EU Member States have so far not decided how much of the process to make public.

This week MEPs will again focus on the rights of citizens when they set out their conditions for a future Brexit deal, which will have to be approved by the European Parliament. Tusk’s negotiating guidelines are due to be revised and adopted at the end of April.

About Kate Holman

Kate Holman writes for Tribune on European affairs