British government to ask EU to 'ringfence' citizens' rights

In flurry of Brexit amendments, government concedes on citizen rights and dangles vote on Article 50 extension.

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    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament during Wednesday's debate [Reuters TV]
    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament during Wednesday's debate [Reuters TV]

    London, United Kingdom - The British parliament has passed an amendment to ensure the rights of 3.5 million European Union citizens in the United Kingdom and 1.3 million British citizens living in EU countries remain protected, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

    Following the fourth parliamentary debate this year on Britain's departure from the bloc, the House of Commons on Wednesday voted on a series of amendments to a motion put forward by the government on the next steps for Brexit. Two out of five were passed almost unanimously.

    The so-called Costa amendment - after Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP behind the motion - asks Prime Minister Theresa May to "seek at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part two of the withdrawal agreement on citizens' rights and ensure its implementation prior to the UK's exiting the European Union, whatever the outcome of negotiations on other aspects of the withdrawal agreement".

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    The vote followed May's U-turn on delaying Brexit on Tuesday, when she announced that should she fail to get a revised deal through the House of Commons by March 12, she would give members of parliament the last word on leaving the EU without a deal.

    Should parliament vote against leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, MPs will decide on March 14 whether they want an extension to Article 50 - the part of the Treaty on the European Union that enables member states to leave the bloc - "not beyond June".

    May's promises mirror an amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper, an MP for the main opposition Labour party, which was passed by 502 votes to 20 after a group of hardline Brexiter Conservatives objected.

    Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's "softer" Brexit proposal, calling for a UK-wide customs union and close alignment with the EU's single market, was defeated by 323 to 240.

    Corbyn will now have to follow up on his promise of supporting a second referendum, as announced earlier this week. The party has confirmed that the options it would support putting to the people include a "credible Leave option" or remaining in the EU - although these would ultimately have to be decided by parliament.

    An amendment by the Scottish National Party's Ian Blackford to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal "under any circumstances" was also defeated.

    'Big step forward'

    May had cast doubt on whether the government would support the Costa amendment during Tuesday's speech, claiming that "the EU does not have the legal authority to do a separate deal on citizens' rights without a new mandate" and that it was a "matter for individual member states". 

    A controversy also emerged over Costa's resignation from his role as parliamentary private secretary. However, Costa clarified during Wednesday's debate that "there is a convention that if a parliamentary aide tables an amendment they are expected to resign".

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    The government has now promised to push the EU to revise its mandate and negotiate a separate agreement on citizens' rights.

    EU citizens living in the UK can make online applications for "settled status" if they have been in the UK for five years or more and can receive "pre-settled status" if they arrived in the UK before Brexit day. However, rights groups have warned that some applicants may fall through the cracks.

    Most European countries have made unilateral offers for UK citizens living in the EU.

    The UK's adoption of the amendment was seen as a success by campaign groups The3Million and British in Europe, which have been advocating for citizens' rights.

    "It's a first step to put no deal for citizens off the table," Maike Bohn, of The3Million campaign for EU citizens in the UK, told Al Jazeera.

    "It [provides for] social security and pension rights, especially for the British in Europe, that the UK would have to negotiate with 27 countries. It's a big step forward," Bohn said, adding that "now the ball is in the EU's court."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News