EU negotiators Guy Verhofstadt and Michel Barnier are driving a hard bargain on citizens' rights
Professor Jonathan Portes said the Civil Service was overwhelmed by the prospective task of guaranteeing the rights of millions of people for whom the authorities have poor and even non-existent records.
Brussels is demanding that all EU citizens who live and worked in Britain, those who have done so in the past, and those who will do up until the day of Brexit, retain their current rights along with any current and future family members who join them in the country.
But alongside the serious political problems with Europe’s stance Professor Portes pointed out that Whitehall faces a monumental bureaucratic challenge if they were to try to implement such an arrangement given the UK’s lax immigration checks.
Unlike many other EU countries, including Belgium and Germany, Britain has never put in place a system of entry and exit checks meaning officials do not know how many EU citizens are in the country or who they are.
Elsewhere in Europe newly arrived EU citizens are required to register with their local authority upon arriving, providing them with a permanent address they can be contacted at, a copy of their passport and proof of employment.
But Europeans moving to Britain do not need to do any of these things, and the widely quoted figure for the number living in the UK – around 3.2 million – is actually no more than an estimate based on surveys and tax data.
Professor Portes said this chronic lack of data means UK officials face a mind-bogglingly difficult task trying to identifying those whose rights need to be protected, adding that this bureaucratic nightmare was stalling early progress on the Brexit talks.
The economics professor, from King’s College London, made the remarks at an event in Brussels organised by the neutral think tank UK in a Changing Europe, of which he is also a senior fellow.
Speaking about citizens’ rights, he said: “There are a lot of misconceptions on this. There is a strong desire across the political spectrum in the UK to sort this issue out.
“There’s no significant constituency in the UK at the moment, even in the Conservative party, that wants to see large numbers of EU citizens resident in the UK expelled.”
He explained: “There are three roadblocks to a deal. The first one, which has delayed progress quite considerably so far, is the simple administrative difficulty and challenges that this issue puts before the British state.
“We do not have a population register in the UK. We do not have a comprehensive entry and exit database. We don’t know who these 3.2m people are – we know that number purely from surveys. We don’t know their names or addresses.
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“Even seeking to establish who those people are is a major challenge and one that the administrative processes of the British government are simply not equipped to deal with.
“A lot of the reluctance of the British government to engage with this issue so far is not any desire to keep people out…it’s simply that we collectively do not know how we’re going to deal with this issue.”
Professor Portes said that, given the UK’s insistence it is leaving the European Court of Justice and the EU’s demands that its citizens’ rights are independently safeguarded, the best option available is for the two parties to set up an international tribunal specifically overseeing the Brexit deal.
Brexit debate in pictures Mon, April 17, 2017
The debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg will focus on key issues of the Brexit talks including reciprocal rights for EU citizens, the peace process in Northern Ireland and trade
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Former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage (L) gestures as he speaks with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (R) prior to a debate on the conclusions of the last European Council, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
He said that if London and Brussels can agree on such a scheme the rest of the talks may progress fairly smoothly, but if they get bogged down in legalistic issues at such an early stage there is “close to zero” chance of other, more substantive issues like the Brexit bill being resolved.
The academic said: “It would require the UK to accept that ‘foreign judges’ are going to influence UK law and it would require the EU to accept that the ECJ is not going to be the ultimate court.
“If the EU and the UK can compromise and come to a sensible solution on this issue, which will require both sides eating their words, that seems to be a very good signal for how the negotiations [will go] on the much more difficult issue of the Brexit bill, of Northern Ireland.
“It will generate goodwill it will show both sides are willing to be reasonable. But if the negotiations stick on this legalistic point, if neither side is willing to compromise, it seems the changes of getting a deal on the much more substantive issues is close to zero.
“What happens in the next few months will be a very important signal about how these negotiations are going to go.”