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May expected to challenge right of EU citizens to bring family to Britain

A major clash over the unrestricted right of EU citizens living in Britain to continue to bring spouses and other immediate family to live with them in the UK after Brexit is expected after the publication of the official negotiation guidelines.

The EU’s guidelines state that any reciprocal deal on the rights of EU citizens in the UK must also cover “their family members who accompany them or join them at any point in time before or after the withdrawal date”.

But this is likely to be challenged by Theresa May who, as home secretary, sharply restricted the ability of UK citizens to bring non-European spouses into Britain in 2012 by requiring them to meet a minimum income threshold of £18,600 a year before their spouse could join them.

Conservative ministers have repeatedly said they want to extend the income threshold and introduce an English language test for the non-European spouses of EU citizens living in Britain.

The UK court of appeal upheld the legality of May’s policy in February while acknowledging that its impact was “particularly harsh” and led to tens of thousands of families being separated.

Saira Grant, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “It is unsurprising that the European Union will not countenance having its own citizens’ right to a family life being treated the same way as the UK government currently treats British citizens.

“Our family migration rules mean that UK citizens and residents face huge, often insurmountable obstacles, to bringing their spouses and loved ones to live with them in the UK. Young children are frequently separated from a parent, causing lasting psychological trauma, and elderly relatives are forced to live alone abroad, with their children unable to care for them here. This is a wake-up call to the government to take urgent action to create a fairer system for all.”

Tory ministers have long bridled at the fact that the EU’s freedom of movement rules has prevented them from extending the family migration rule to EU citizens living in Britain.

The inclusion of family immigration rights in the Brexit negotiating guidelines by the European commission is no accident. It has been pushed vigorously by the European parliament, which sees it as its responsibility to preserve all existing rights for EU citizens living in Britain even if those rights clash with UK law.
Asked about EU nationals being able to bring in their relatives during a recent interview in London, Antonio Tajani, president of the European parliament, said: “We want to defend the same rights as today. This is very clear in the text approved by a very large majority [of MEPs]. For us, it is a priority and it is a red line. It’s impossible to go back.”

But Conservatives, including, it is assumed, May, have long wanted to restrict EU citizens’ rights to bring their families to Britain. In a major speech on Europe in 2014, David Cameron, said they had to “deal with the extraordinary situation” whereby it was easier for an EU citizen to bring a non-EU spouse to Britain, than it was for a British citizen to do the same.

The then prime minister added: “At the moment, if a British citizen wants to bring, say, a South American partner to the UK, then we ask for proof that they meet an income threshold and can speak English. But EU law means we cannot apply these tests to EU migrants. Their partners can just come straight into our country without any proper controls at all.”

The British demand to bring EU citizens’ family rights into line with the UK law featured in Cameron’s pre-referendum negotiations, but the EU refused to give any ground on the issue.

The last Conservative election manifesto included a pledge “to toughen requirements for non-EU spouses to join EU citizens, including with an income threshold and English language test”. It is expected that the Toies 2017 election manifesto, which is to be published later this month, will repeat that pledge.

On Wednesday, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he expected that the rights of EU citizens in Britain would be “pretty much” the same after Britain leaves the EU as they were now. He failed to make any mention of possible restrictions on their future rights to bring their families with them.