BERLIN — Angela Merkel rebuffed a request by Theresa May for assurances that Britons living in the European Union and EU citizens living in the U.K. would keep their rights to residence, work and healthcare after Brexit.
The German chancellor’s polite but firm “Nein” when the two leaders met in Berlin on November 18 dashed the British prime minister’s hopes of a quick, informal deal to reassure expatriates on both sides of the Channel that they will not lose out when Britain leaves the EU, three people familiar with the matter said.
British officials had hoped to create some goodwill ahead of exit negotiations, expected to start next year once May triggers the EU’s Article 50 divorce clause, by taking the issue of citizens already living in each other’s countries off the table. The issue affects some 1.2 million Britons and their families resident in the other 27 EU countries, and as many as 3.3 million EU citizens resident in the U.K., including almost one million Poles.
A senior European Commission official had quietly encouraged the initiative in a private capacity, both to improve mutual understanding with London and to avoid any suggestion that European citizens were being taken hostages in the negotiations. If the EU were to say it was ready to safeguard the position of Britons living in Europe, it would gain the moral high ground in the talks, the argument went.
The pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph reported last week that British ministers had told business leaders all but a few EU countries were ready to accept the outline of a reciprocity deal possibly as early as at the next EU summit on December 15-16.
But Merkel had already put paid to the British bid by then, sticking to her mantra that there can be no pre-negotiations before Britain tenders its formal notice of intention to leave the Union, setting in motion a two-year countdown to its withdrawal.
May’s push for such a declaration was a rare instance in which, behind closed doors with an EU peer, she has gone beyond bland generalities about her intentions, summed up in stock phrases such as “Brexit means Brexit” and wanting to secure the best deal for Britain that convey no sense of a clear strategy.
A German government spokesman declined to discuss specifics of the Merkel-May meeting, which took place while U.S. President Barack Obama was making a farewell visit to Germany, but said Berlin had made clear its full support for the EU’s “no negotiations without notification” stance. A spokesperson for May’s office said: “I don’t think we’d get into details of private meetings,” noting that the prime minister had made clear publicly what she wants to achieve in terms of “reciprocal rights.”
The tactical thinking behind the German rejection speaks volumes about the depth of mistrust between Berlin and London, and about Merkel’s determination to put preserving the unity of the other 27 EU members ahead of the future relationship with a departing Britain.
Officials were concerned that London would try to salami-slice the negotiations, seeking to retain most of the advantages of EU membership while rejecting obligations such as allowing continued free movement of people, accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, implementing all EU rules and continuing to pay into the EU budget.