An opposition motion calling on the government to “commit today that EU nationals currently living in the UK shall have the right to remain” following the Brexit referendum vote has won overwhelming backing in the House of Commons.
The Labour Party motion passed by 245 votes to two on Thursday evening with most Conservative MPs abstaining. The vote, however, is not binding on the government.
But Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary who proposed the motion, said the result would send a strong message to Home Secretary Theresa May, who is the favourite to replace Prime Minister David Cameron and who has refused to guarantee that citizens of other EU nationals currently living and working in the UK would have full rights to remain in the country when Brexit becomes a reality.
Mrs May has said that the status of these EU nationals would have to be negotiated with the other 27 nations in the bloc, along with the rights of the estimated 1.3 million Britons citizens currently living in EU countries.
After the motion had been passed, Mr Burnham said, “The House of Commons has sent an overwhelming message of support tonight to EU nationals that they are valued members of our society and welcome to stay.
“Today’s debate exposed the weakness of the government’s position. MPs firmly rejected Theresa May’s decision to link the status of EU nationals with British nationals living elsewhere in Europe
“Speaker after speaker said it could only strengthen the status of British nationals abroad if the UK made a clear and quick decision about the status of EU nationals here.
“To throw any doubt over their right to remain here is to undermine family life, the stability of our public services, our economy and our society. But sadly it is what the home secretary has done.”
During the debate, the Labour motion won the support of a handful of Conservative rebels including Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the 'leave' campaign during the run-up to the referendum vote.
“It is absolutely right to issue the strongest possible reassurance to EU nationals in this country, not just for moral or humanitarian reasons but for very strong economic reasons too,” he told MPs.
“They are welcome, they are necessary, and they are a crucial part of our society and I will be passionately supporting this motion tonight.”
But, responding for the government, Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said ministers were unable to support the motion, though he rejected accusation that the government was treating EU citizens as "bargaining chips" in the Brexit negotiations. as he faced strong criticism from MPs on both sides of the chamber.
He said, "In the approach the government takes and the agreements we make, we will never treat EU citizens as pawns in some kind of cynical game of negotiation chess."
Mr Brokenshire added, however, that it was important to fight for the rights of UK citizens abroad and that it was a government priority to secure “a fair deal for EU citizens as we look to secure a fair deal for British citizens in the EU”.
“That is the responsible approach and that is what we will do. We want to be able to guarantee the legal status of EU nationals living in the UK. I am confident we will be able to do just that (but) any decision to preempt negotiations risks undermining our ability to secure the rights of UK nationals and EU nationals,” he said.
Read analysis of what the vote to leave the EU may mean for for the global mobility industry in Brexit is a reality – a new era for global mobility? by Relocate Global's managing editor, Fiona Murchie.
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