EU parliament threatens veto on Brexit over citizens' rights

The European Parliament on Monday set itself on a collision course with Britain, making a damning assessment of British proposals on EU citizens' rights after the U.K. leaves the European Union.

The legislature indicated it would be using its power of veto on the negotiations if Britain did not become more lenient on the rights of EU citizens living in the country, a further indication of how tough the two-year negotiations are expected to become.

In a letter Monday to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the group said EU citizens in Britain would be looking at "nothing less than relegation to second-class status," adding that the U.K. proposals made on June 26 do not "respect the principles of reciprocity, symmetry and non-discrimination."

Citizens' rights in each other's nations are considered the first issue that both sides must settle.

"It is clear we will not approve any deal which diminishes the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. or U.K. citizens in the EU," Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament's chief Brexit official, told the AP.

Even though Barnier is leading the negotiations for the EU as a whole, the European Parliament still has a veto right on any deal. So Verhofstadt's words carry power and should boost the standing of Barnier when he meets with his British counterpart David Davis next week.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had first floated her ideas on protecting the rights of each other's citizens at an EU summit in late June. The U.K. proposal offers EU nationals who have lived in Britain for at least five years — as of an unspecified cut-off date — "settled status," with the right to live, work and access benefits. The estimated 3 million EU nationals in Britain would all have to apply individually for permission to stay, and it's unclear what the plan would mean for those who have been in the U.K. for a shorter time.

The other EU leaders were halfhearted at best about what May called a "generous" offer on protecting the rights of EU citizens.

After carefully studying the details, the EU Parliament's Brexit Steering Group was much more definitive and said too much of Britain's optimistic talk was just a smoke screen. It indicated it wouldn't be good enough for the legislature.

"The rights of EU citizens in the U.K. will be reduced to a level lower than third country nationals in the EU," the letter to Barnier said.

"The aspirational language used in relation to rights as important as the right to health or the recognition of diploma and professional qualifications does not provide the much-needed guarantees."

"Above all," the four-page letter brimming with scathing comments added, EU citizens in Britain would have "no life-long protection."

The EU parliament wants citizens from both sides to receive "fair treatment" and their rights "given full priority in the negotiations."

Alongside citizens' rights, the Brexit negotiators will first have to address the substantial bill that Britain will have to pay to quit the EU and the problems surrounding the border in Ireland.

The withdrawal process of Britain from the EU should be completed by March 2019, meaning negotiators only have up to the fall of 2018 to agree, not only on the disentanglement of the country but also on setting up a new relationship.

The EU has said once there is "sufficient" progress on such withdrawal issues as the rights of citizens, it could start talks simultaneously on a new relationship and a trade deal.

The difficulties already surrounding the first issue indicate that it could become a tough job.