Michel Barnier, who represents the EU in Brexit negotiations, has dealt a blow to the chances of the citizen rights of Britons around Europe being ring-fenced.
The British government was forced to write to the EU to press for the protection of the citizens rights section of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement after it lost a “historic” vote on an amendment in the British parliament in February.
But in a reply published on Thursday, Barnier stressed that the rights of Britons in the EU were a priority for Brussels and each individual member state, but that ring-fencing would be too complicated given that so much of the Withdrawal Agreement is linked to citizens' rights.
“It is therefore far from straightforward to identify which provisions would need to be 'carved out' as part of the ring-fencing exercise proposed by the House of Commons… with the risk of unequal treatment of certain categories of citizens,” Barnier wrote.
Barnier stressed that preparations have been carried out in individual countries to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
“In the event of this undesired scenario the rights of British nationals residing in the European Union would remain a priority … No British national would be left in the dark in such a situation.”
But Barnier said that the efforts of Brussels were focused on making sure Theresa May's much-maligned Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and brought into force.
“We should not be distracted from this essential objective,” he said.
The Westminster amendment which prompted the British government to force the issue of ring-fencing rights with the EU had the support of both Leave and Remain-supporting MPs.
It cost the author of the amendment, MP Alberto Costa, his job in the government but was warmly welcomed by campaign groups such as British in Europe.
The amendment forced May to seek a deal with the EU, at the earliest possible opportunity, to ring-fence the citizens' rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement before Brexit Day – currently April 12th.
Ring-fencing citizens' rights is something campaigners have long called for given the possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal and the impact that would have on the futures of British immigrants throughout the EU, whose existing rights would be lost immediately unless countries decide to act.
Theresa May might still bring back her Brexit deal for a third vote in the British parliament, hoping MPs will pass it after she on Wednesday offered to resign if her deal is passed.