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Fresh Brexit row as EU launches legal action against UK over citizens’ rights

Talks on a future relationship between the two sides are ongoing.

4 min read

The European Commission has launched legal action against Britain for a “failure to comply” with EU rules on the free movement of people.

The UK has four months to respond to the claim from the top Brussels body, which cites a string of “shortcomings” in the way Britain has handled the issue of citizens’ rights during the post-Brexit transition period.

The move is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter post-Brexit war of words between the two sides as they try to thrash out a future trade deal.

The Cabinet on Thursday received an update from the UK’s top negotiator on the latest round of talks, with David Frost telling ministers that the UK was not asking for “anything special, bespoke or unique from the European Union”.

The Commission’s new infringement notice claims that current UK law “limits the scope” of EU citizens in the UK and curbs the ability of European citizens and their family members "to appeal administrative decisions restricting free movement rights”.

Accusing the UK of having breached European directives on free movement of EU citizens, workers and the freedom of establishment, the Commission reminds UK ministers: “EU law on free movement of persons continues to apply to and in the United Kingdom as if it were still an EU Member State during the transition period.”

The Commission added: “Furthermore, the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK after the end of the transition period, as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, are built on the rights that they currently enjoy in the United Kingdom under EU rules.”

And it says: “For these reasons, the Commission decided to send a letter of formal notice to the United Kingdom – the first step in the infringement process.

“The United Kingdom now has four months to take the necessary measures to address the shortcomings identified by the Commission. Otherwise, the Commission may send a reasoned opinion to the UK authorities.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said on Wednesday: “We will look at what the EU has to say and we will respond in due course.”

Long-standing critics of Brexit were quick to pounce on the infringement notice from the EU.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said: "It is beyond frustrating that it has got to the point where the UK Government is facing legal action to protect the rights of people who contribute so much to this country. 

“The fact that the Commission feels it has to take this action to protect rights after the transition period reflects terribly on the UK government and their actions.

"The current crisis has made it clear just how vital immigration is. For our NHS and social care systems, EU workers are key.”


Britain formally left the EU on January 31 but it remains in a transition period during which it is closely aligned to most of its regulations.

Talks on what happens at the end of that period are currently ongoing, but appear to be mired in disagreement over issues including how far Britain wants to diverge from EU rules, the jurisdicition of the bloc’s top court, and future access to Britain’s fishing waters.

According to Number 10, Mr Frost, who is heading up the UK’s video-conference negotiations with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier, told Cabinet ministers that the UK would keep pressing for a “free trade agreement based on precedent, similar to those the EU has already got with other countries like Canada”.

“He said, however, that the EU has asked far more from the UK than they have from other sovereign countries with whom they have reached free trade agreements,” the spokesperson added.

“For instance they’ve asked for the same access to our waters that they did when we were still in the EU, for the UK to stay bound to their laws and rules, and for the UK to automatically follow EU decisions on areas such as workers’ rights even though we have much higher standards than they do.”

And Downing Street said Cabinet had given its “full support” to the UK’s stance and “agreed that we won’t agree to demands to give up our rights as an independent state especially when the EU has shown from their agreements with other countries like Canada that these controls are not necessary”.

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