Informal post-Brexit talks could start next week if EU was willing, says Hammond
Informal discussions on the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU could start as early as next week if the remaining 27 states were willing, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said.
Mr Hammond urged the other EU states to drop their insistence that no discussions can take place before the UK formally notifies Brussels of its intention to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, triggering a two-year countdown to departure. Starting talks now could help end uncertainty about the future of EU nationals in the UK and Britons resident on the continent, he suggested.
His comments came as immigration minister James Brokenshire denied that the three million EU nationals in Britain were being used as "bargaining chips" ahead of what are expected to be tough negotiations with Brussels.
Giving these EU nationals assurances on their post-withdrawal status would be "unwise" until the fate of Britons living abroad is decided in the Brexit deal, Mr Brokenshire told the House of Commons.
"It has been suggested the Government could now fully guarantee EU nationals living in the UK the right to stay. This would be unwise without a parallel assurance from European governments regarding British nationals living in their countries," he said.
"Such a step might also have the unintended consequence of prompting EU immigration to the UK."
Mr Hammond said he hoped that the deal eventually struck with the remaining EU nations would mean ex-patriates from both sides being treated with "some symmetry", with each able to carry on living and working in their adoptive countries exactly as before Brexit.
But he told the BBC: "We have to negotiate this and we have to make sure we get that reciprocal assurance that Brits abroad will be protected.
"Those who are saying today `No, we will make a unilateral commitment that EU nationals can stay in the UK without extracting a matching promise that Brits in Spain are able to stay there', I think are selling our people out too cheap. We have to make sure that this is a reciprocal arrangement that works both ways."
He added: "I'd urge the European Union to think again about this mantra that it won't allow any discussions before Article 50 notice is served. We could have an informal discussion with European Union countries next week and we could perhaps come to an understanding about that kind of issue ahead of the formal negotiations."
Replying to an urgent question from prominent Leave campaigner and Labour MP Gisela Stuart, Mr Brokenshire said there would be "no immediate" change in the status of EU citizens living in the UK.
Ms Stuart, who was co-chair of the official Leave campaign, expressed concern about the Government's stance.
"People are not bargaining chips. It is deeply, deeply offensive to assume that this is a country that retrospectively changes the rights of its citizens."
Mr Brokenshire responded: "It is not, as you seek to characterise it, in some way viewing people as bargaining chips at all.
"It is rather to get the best possible outcome for EU citizens who are here, as well as the 1.2 million British citizens who are in the European Union."
Front runner for the Tory crown, Home Secretary Theresa May, has said she "wants to guarantee" the position of EU nationals in Britain, but this would come in the context of withdrawal negotiations which will only begin when the new prime minister invokes Article 50.
Leadership rival Andrea Leadsom has insisted EU nationals must be given assurances now that they are welcome to stay in Britain.
Meanwhile, shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed George Osborne's plan to cut corporation tax to less than 15% to boost the wobbling economy would set Britain up as a European tax haven and potentially undermine Brexit negotiations.