The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has defended keeping an open position on the residential status of European Union (EU) citizens following Britain’s departure from the bloc, saying it was essential to go into the negotiating process on Brexit with a strong hand.
Speaking at a fringe event at Conservative Party Conference, Dr. Fox said that the government would “like to be able to give a reassurance to EU nationals in the UK, but that depends on reciprocation by other countries”.
Prime Minister Theresa May has previously said that she would expect to hand the right to stay in the UK to all EU citizens currently living here, but that she also wanted to get the best deal for Britain.
The international trade secretary agreed, saying: “I think we would all hope what we get is a totally open reciprocal agreement where UK citizens in other EU countries are free and welcome to stay there as would those who are settled in the UK.
“But again as the prime minister said: To give that away before we get into a negotiation would be to hand over one of our main cards in that negotiation and doesn’t necessarily make sense at this point.”
Dr. Fox went on to warn against the folly of buying into Brussels’s worldview during the negotiations, saying: “If we do [negotiations] from the premise that the EU ‘ever closer union’ project is more important than the people, and those who go against it must be punished, we will not get such a good outcome.
“That’s what the skill of our government will be tested on, if we can get the former, and not lead Europe into the latter.”
His comments have been slammed by opposition politicians including the former Labour frontbencher Chukka Umunna MP, a supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, who said that Dr. Fox “needs to understand that he is talking about people not poker chips”.
He added: “These crass remarks would leave even Nigel Farage shamefaced. Instead of gambling with their future, Liam Fox and his government colleagues should do the decent thing and give assurances to all EU nationals living here that they will have the right to stay.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron similarly said: “People who have made their home here, paid taxes and contributed to our society must be able to stay, no ifs and no buts.
“These are people’s neighbours, colleagues and spouses, they must not be treated as political bargaining chips.”