Speaking during the plenary session in Strasbourg, Guy Verhofstadt echoed a phrase often used by campaign groups, namely that “citizens should not pay the price of Brexit.”
“Everyone presumes the European Parliament will give automatically its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement. Not if the remaining problems with the citizens' rights are not solved first,” said Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister.
Verhofstadt's speech this week reflects growing concern on both sides of the Channel that there are too many gaps in the safeguards that have so far been agreed to protect the rights of the 3.4m EU27 citizens in the UK and 1.6m Britons living in Europe.
The Flemish MEP has consistently stated that citizens' rights must be protected in the event of the UK leaving.
One campaign group, New Europeans, launched a manifesto with five key pledges in Brussels on 10 December (Human Rights Day) to draw attention to the “many” areas of concern that remain in relation to guaranteeing citizens’ rights.
Although Verhofstadt cannot compel the European Parliament to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, there is a growing sense that more needs to be done for citizens’ rights.
The ideas have been endorsed by Danuta Hübner (EPP), also a member of the Brexit Steering Group , Karen Melchior (Renew Europe), Claude Moraes and Julie Ward (both S&D) and Grace O'Sullivan (Greens).
“Everyone presumes the European Parliament will give automatically its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement. Not if the remaining problems with the citizens' rights are not solved first" Guy Verhofstadt
Campaigners have again called on Parliament to honour its pledge to guarantee free movement rights of Britons in Europe.
Speaking on Thursday to The Parliament Magazine, former MP and Secretary General of New Europeans, Roger Casale said, “The way in which the UK and EU have bartered away the rights of citizens to the point where only the bare minimum of safeguards is available represents one of the most shameful chapters in the Brexit negotiations.”
“Instead of a levelling down of citizens' rights, there needs to be a levelling up.”
He added, “Our proposal for an EU Green Card to be given to all 5 million EU citizens in the UK and Britons in Europe would go a long way towards bridging the gap between theory and the day-to-day realities that citizens face and we urge the European Commission to take forward our proposal.”
In its document, Courage Calls: A Citizens' Rights Manifesto, the group also called for unilateral residency guarantees anchored in legislation, a declaratory scheme to replace EU settled status, maintenance of voting rights in local elections and free citizenship to all EU citizens caught up in the UK's decision to leave the EU.
A Parliament source said, “If Parliament refuses to give consent, the UK will leave without a deal, which of course is not great, but I think it will try to use all leverage it can to get further concessions from the Council and the Commission in respect of rights of Britons in Europe.”
The New Europeans manifesto was launched at the Brussels Press Club with the help of the actor, writer and political campaigner Kate Willoughby, who performs as the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, and Else Kvist, a Danish journalist who lives in London and was denied her vote in the European elections in May.
Kvist is calling on the UK government to give her, and others like her, UK citizenship without a fee.
The group believes that linking up with the campaign group #Emilymatters will focus the minds of decision-makers so that the necessary ring-fencing of citizens' rights is put in place before the UK leaves the EU next month.