The news that Theresa May offered to do a deal on expats – only to be rebuffed by Angela Merkel – is unsurprising. The Prime Minister has ended up in a pretty bad, unbecoming position on EU nationals using them as bargaining chips in a way that has appalled her critics (and even some of her supporters). So it’s not surprising that she wanted to get this awful business over with in her recent meeting with Merkel. She suggested: let’s just agree an EU-wide deal whereby everyone’s expats can stay where there are. But, again unsurprisingly, Merkel rebuffed her.
Before their meeting, Merkel said publicly that they would not and could not talk about Brexit, due to the strict rule on not negotiating in any way until the invocation of Article 50. Donald Tusk has reiterated that point, in a letter published today. It’s the EU’s way of pressurising Mrs May to serve notice under Article 50 sooner rather than later.
I understand that the Prime Minister was surprised – stunned, even – when Merkel rejected her offer out of hand. And that the Prime Minister needed some time to compose herself after that rejection. A pretty bad way to start their relationship.
But, as Guy Verhofstadt would put it: welcome to hell. This is how the EU rolls. It is fully aware that Mrs May is keen to get out of this bind over EU nationals – and it doesn’t want to let her. It likes her discomfiture. No matter how well the bilateral meeting went, Merkel was never going to release Mrs May from this trap, the first of many traps set for her in Brussels.
There is another way of doing this. Theresa May should say that she is not prepared to see our three million EU nationals used as bargaining chips, and that she will offer them security right now. No matter what the rest of the EU says or does. This unilateral gesture would generate goodwill. And – let’s face it – no one thinks Britain is going to deport EU nationals en masse or that British pensioners are going to be rounded up into vans on Costa del Sol. It’s immoral, and anyway illegal under the Vienna Convention. Britain would make capital out of something we’re going to do anyway. It’s basic smart politics.
This policy – offering unilateral assurance – is also backed by 84 per cent of the public, according to a poll for British Future. It’s the mainstream position, and Mrs May should never have ended up outside it. Throughout the referendum campaign, unilateral assurance for EU nationals was proposed not just by Boris and Michael Gove but by everyone from Ukip to the Liberal Democrats. And four out of the five contenders for the Tory party leadership – Mrs May stood alone. Several business people and even religious leaders have been begging her to reconsider. Theresa May is not a cold-hearted person: my hunch is that she just miscalculated. But her miscalculation is now being exploited in Brussels.
Mrs May’s government could, in theory, try to make capital out of Merkel’s refusal – saying that Merkel, not May, is the reason that the future of EU nationals not been guaranteed. But this would be disingenuous. Merkel is not stopping the British government telling EU nationals that they can stay, and retain all of their rights. Theresa May would, and should, do that right now. She doesn’t need anyone’s permission. We’re talking about the lives of three million of our adopted countrymen and women, almost 150,000 of whom work in health or social care.
Is such a promise achievable? For the last few weeks, British Future has been working on a very specific plan put together a commission chaired by Gisela Stuart. I’m one of the members. Its findings will be published soon. Mrs May can take control of this situation – quickly, easily and without needing the permission of Frau Merkel of anyone on the continent. Let’s hope that she decides not to play their games, and takes matters into her own hands.