European Union (EU) citizens who move to Britain during the negotiations to leave the EU are unlikely to be allowed to stay, the new Brexit minister, David Davis has said, in comments designed to avoid a pre-Brexit surge of people trying to come before the UK secedes from the bloc.
In his first interviews in his new role, Mr Davis has vowed to secure a “generous settlement” for EU migrants who moved to the UK while it was an EU member state, but accepted that doing so might entice other EU citizens to rush to the UK in an attempt to gain those benefits.
“I want to see a generous settlement to the people here already because they didn’t pick this circumstance, we did,” he told Sky News’s Dermot Murnaghan. “They came here thinking they could be here for life – some have been here for many decades. So we want to get a generous settlement for them.
“We want to do that at the same time as we get a similarly generous settlement for British citizens living within the EU.”
The warning of a pre-Brexit surge came from Mrs May days before she was made Prime Minister. “We may well see people wanting to come here before [EU] exit happens,” she warned.
But Mr Davis said the problem was not insurmountable.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday he said: “There are a variety of possibilities.
“We may have to say that the right to indefinite leave to remain protection only applies before a certain date. But you have to make those judgments on reality not speculation.”
But he denied that the government was using people as bargaining chips, saying: “If you do it all together nobody is a bargaining counter. It is based on the presumption that they [the EU] will be rational about their own citizens’ interest, which they will be.”
Expanding on his comments during the televised interview, he admitted: “We’ve got to do it within the law as it stands because at that point we’ll still be within the European Union.”
He was also sanguine about being able to ascertain whether someone arrived before or after the nominated date, saying “they’ll have employment records, most of them, or other records.”
But he denied that they would be forced to produce those records, saying “I don’t think we’d even need to do that, I think we’d know anyway.”
And he dismissed parallels with the problem of tracking illegal immigrants, saying “That’s a different matter. Illegal immigrants are a problem, but people who are here legally, we don’t have a difficulty there.”
Mrs May met with the Queen on Wednesday afternoon, formalising her transition from Home Secretary to Prime Minister following a brief race for the Conservative Party leadership. Within hours she had appointed Mr Davis, a backbencher and former shadow Home Secretary to the position of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
“She said, ‘I have decided to create a Department for Leaving or Exiting the EU’,” Mr Davis said of his meeting with Mrs May.
“I said I prefer exiting because that makes it Department X,” he joked.
But dividing lines are already emerging between Mr Davis and his leader, over when to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally indicating Britain’s intention to leave the EU. The Article stipulates a two-year negotiation to formulate the transition.
In an article written days before his appointment, Mr Davis said Article 50 should be triggered by the end of the year, following a consultation with British interests. Before becoming Prime Minister Mrs May indicated that she believed the process should be delayed.
Speaking to Sky this morning, Mr Davis appeared to have acquiesced over the point, saying he now thought it would happen “early next year”.
“We have a huge negotiation to do and we have to get all of it right,” he said. “We’ve got to get that done properly, so that makes it sort of beginning of next year, early-ish”
And questioned on whether he or his colleagues Liam Fox, the new Minister for Internation Trade, or Boris Johnson, the new Foreign Secretary, were taking the lead on Brexit, he replied: “The person who’s in charge, to be clear about this, is actually Theresa May.
“You see this straight away because on Friday she broke the sequence of the reshuffle to go to see Nicola Sturgeon, to talk about Scotland’s perspective and what we can do to make it easier for Scotland.”
However, he is upbeat about the new job and its chances of making Brexit work. “I’m having the most brilliant people in Whitehall apply to work [in the new department] – we’ve got ten people for every job. So clearly fast track civil servants see this as the place to be.”
On whether there could be any change of Britain staying within the European Union, he was firm.
“The aim here is essentially to try to address the concerns of … Remainers, people who are worried about inward investment, trade with Europe, that sort of thing,” he said.
“[But] they can’t have a veto because 17.5 million people have given us a mandate, we can’t disobey them. But what we can do is do what we can to minimise any disruption.”