This week the British government published updated correspondence between its Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
The latest letter from Barclay to Barnier gave some hope to those campaigning for the rights of five million EU nationals in the UK and Britons throughout Europe.
Campaigners, backed by Conservative MP Alberto Costa, have been fighting for the citizens' rights part of the much-maligned Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to be ringfenced, meaning that part of the deal will still stand even if Britain crashes out of Europe without an agreement.
From his letter at least it appears that Barclay has clearly taken the side of campaigners from groups British in Europe and the 3Million which represents EU nationals in Britain.
“I'm sure you agree they make a persuasive case on the need to provide certainty to citizens in all scenarios,” says Barclay.
And while EU member states have taken steps to reassure the rights of Britons living in their countries that certain rights will be protected for a certain length of time Barclay points out “there are gaps in a number of areas in a number of member states”.
The British in Europe campaign group, which says ringfencing is so “crucial to our rights and our lives”, welcomed Barclay's “clearly worded letter” that reflects “fairly and fully the issues we raised” in a recent meeting between the minister and campaigners.
British in Europe's co-chair Jane Golding said: “Mr Barclay is right that we are not asking for the withdrawal agreement to be re-opened. And a ringfenced withdrawal agreement is infinitely better than 28 unilateral national solutions that cannot resolve issues such as cross border social security contributions for working people, or health insurance for pensioners.”
With the British government apparently onside, the ball seems firmly in Barnier's court.
Kalba Meadows from British in Europe and Remain in France Together (RIFT) told The Local: “So far the EU hasn't been willing to consider ringfencing citizens' rights under Article 50, though we hope that position will soften in the weeks to come, with a no-deal exit back on the table as an increasing risk. So we await Michel Barnier's response to this latest letter with anticipation.”
But despite support for ringfencing apparently growing among members of the European Parliament and indeed member states and lawyers firmly of the opinion that it can be done, the EU's Brexit negotiator Barnier has previously called it a “distraction” and already spelled out his reluctance to go down that path.
In a first letter to Barclay, Barnier stressed that the rights of Britons in the EU were a priority for Brussels and each individual member state, but that ringfencing would be too complicated given that so much of the Withdrawal Agreement is linked to citizens' rights.
“It is therefore far from straightforward to identify which provisions would need to be 'carved out' as part of the ringfencing exercise proposed by the House of Commons… with the risk of unequal treatment of certain categories of citizens,” Barnier wrote.
The EU's negotiator has promised that no British citizen would be “left in the dark” but with the next British Prime Minister likely to be ardent Brexiteer Boris Johnson, who has vowed Britain will leave the EU “with or without a deal” Barnier's promise offers little comfort to five million citizens living in limbo.
They need something far more legally binding than a promise not to be left in the dark and it needs to happen quickly.
“Both sides have a special duty of care to agree to do the right thing as quickly as possible, so that the people most directly affected by Brexit, and without a say about it, can get on with their lives with certainty’,” writes British in Europe's co-chair Jane Golding.
A spokesman for the European Commission told The Local: “We confirm that we received a letter this morning on citizens’ rights from Steve Barclay, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU. Michel Barnier will reply swiftly to this letter.
“The Commission has consistently made clear that the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and UK nationals in the EU are our priority.
“The best protection for citizens is through the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, which contains substantive rights as well as an effective enforcement mechanism. The latter is particularly crucial in guaranteeing the protection of all rights over time.
“In case of a ‘no-deal’ scenario, the EU and the Member States have adopted contingency measures to ensure that UK nationals could remain legally resident in the period after a ‘no-deal’ Withdrawal. The Commission has worked with the EU27 Member States to ensure coherence in the overall approach. “