The UK government has sought to reassure the EU that its citizens living in the UK will not be deported if they fail to apply for settled status, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator has said.
Speaking after a meeting with the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, on Thursday night, Guy Verhofstadt said he had raised a number of concerns regarding the status of EU citizens in the UK after it leaves the bloc.
He said he had been told there would be no automatic deportation of people, after the existing grace period, if they failed to apply for settled status. “I wanted to be sure that there would be no automatic deportation for people after that period because it can be people who are very vulnerable,” he said.
“The idea would be that even these people, after the grace period, they will have the possibility to apply giving the grounds for why it was not possible [to apply for settled status] within the normal procedures.”
The application process for EU citizens to obtain settled status opened at the end of March 2019. It will close, following the six-month grace period, on 30 June 2021.
Responding to Verhofstadt’s comments, the Home Office issued a statement saying there were a number of misconceptions about the settlement scheme which were unhelpful. “We have made it clear that where people have reasonable grounds for missing the original deadline, they will be given a further opportunity to apply,” it said.
On Wednesday the European parliament issued a stinging rebuke to the British government when an overwhelming majority of MEPs backed a resolution raising “grave concerns” about the settled status scheme.
EU fears were fuelled by the Home Office minister Brandon Lewis, who told a German newspaper last year that EU nationals risk being deported if they failed to apply for special status by the end of 2020.
Following the meeting with Verhofstadt – which an EU source described as “constructive” – Barclay said: “The EU settlement scheme has been a huge success, and 2.5 million people have already been granted a status guaranteeing their right to live, work, study and access benefits such as healthcare.
“The focus should be on offering reassurances and avoiding misconceptions about the EUSS and on ensuring that EU member states step up and provide a similar level of reassurance for UK nationals.”
MEPs also fear the absence of physical documents puts EU27 nationals at risk of discrimination by prospective employers and landlords, who may be reluctant to do online checks. EU sources said Verhofstadt was told the government would look into making printouts available so people could show paper proof of their settled status.
The statement from the Home Office on Friday morning appeared to contradict this, saying: “There is no change to our digital approach. It has always been the case that people could print a copy of their confirmation letter, but this can’t be used as evidence of status.
“The EU settlement scheme grants people with a secure, digital status which future-proofs their rights. Physical documents can get lost, stolen, damaged and tampered with.”
British officials think the European parliament’s criticisms of the settled status scheme are unjustified, especially when UK citizens face three-figure fees and bureaucratic hurdles to secure their own future in EU member states.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Verhofstadt acknowledged that there were also anxieties among UK citizens living in EU countries, which the EU would seek to address.
“There is a problem also with anxiety for the UK citizens living on the continent,” he said. “So what we’re going to do now is increase the pressure in the coming days. There will be a letter going out from all sides – parliament, the council – to member states saying: ‘Look, in 12 countries things are going very well.’
“In 12 countries they have a declaratory system, so there’s no need to advocate for citizenship of that country. In others it is more difficult and we want to be sure that, in 2020, in these other 15 countries of the European Union, things are going smoothly.”
The UK government has also sought to offer reassurance on the independent monitoring body it is creating to uphold citizens’ rights under the withdrawal agreement. Changes to the body proposed by Boris Johnson’s government prompted the EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to warn about its potential effectiveness in dealing with citizens’ complaints and problems.
Verhofstadt told the BBC he was still pushing for plans that would create “associate” membership of the EU, a move that would allow Britons to sign up to be citizens of the EU even after Brexit. “My idea is that the European Union and European citizenship has to be possible for the European living somewhere else in the world,” he said.