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Brussels demands answers after UK abruptly rejects residence for thousands of EU citizens

Brussels is demanding clarification from London after tens of thousands of EU citizens living in the UK were abruptly denied the right to remain, leaving them potentially liable to repay welfare benefits.

Brexit commissioner Maroš Šefčovič told ministers from the bloc’s 27 member states that he was taking up their case at a meeting on Monday, diplomats told the Financial Times, after several raised the issue.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time as the two sides near a deal to resolve a long-running dispute over their post-Brexit trading relationship.

They aim to amend the application of the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs trade across the Irish Sea, within weeks. The UK wants to reduce checks on traffic between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which remained in the EU single market for goods after the rest of Britain left the bloc in 2020.

About 141,000 EU citizens suddenly had their online applications updated to a rejection last month by the UK’s Home Office, even though the refusals in some cases were dated back to June 2021. Those rejected could have to return benefits paid over that period.

The Europe ministers of Poland, Romania, Belgium and Ireland raised the situation with Šefčovič, several diplomats present at the meeting told the FT. 

“Welfare payments will now cease and some may have to pay back money. The risk of these people plunging into poverty is high,” said an EU diplomat. “It will be a total surprise to them that they no longer have the right to live in the UK.

“The commission said it is trying to obtain clarification from the British and is carrying out a legal analysis of the situation,” they added.

The Brexit deal ended free movement for EU citizens but allowed those who have lived in the UK for at least five years before Britain left the bloc to remain provided they apply for settled status.

The UK has so far granted more than 5.5mn EU citizens the right to remain.

A senior EU diplomat warned that London should be aware that “acting heavy-handedly” over the treatment of the bloc’s citizens could sour member states towards future UK government requests for co-operation agreements on returning illegal migrants.

“Protection of EU citizens’ rights is a priority for us,” added another diplomat.

The UK watchdog overseeing the implementation of EU citizens’ rights in the UK first highlighted the issue on January 27, after the Home Office told it that the online accounts of applicants who were refused status between June 2021 and April 2022 had been updated.

Until then those applying had a Certificate of Application granting them residency. “Potentially 141,000 people continued to enjoy rights to which they were not entitled, including receiving benefit payments,” the Independent Monitoring Agency said.

“We are seeking assurance that the [EU settlement scheme] digital system is fit for purpose, maintained and audited to reflect accurate digital statuses, and accurately available on demand for all eligible citizens.”

The Home Office said: “The online digital status for some EU Settlement Scheme applicants who were refused status has been updated in line with the decision taken on their application, which had already been communicated to the individuals concerned.

“We are working across government and with the EU and member states to understand any further implications and to ensure the situation is managed quickly and pragmatically.” 

The European Commission said on Tuesday night: “The EU is aware of this issue. It potentially affects a large number of EU citizens, therefore being a matter of concern.

“We are engaging with the British authorities at several levels to seek clarity and to ensure the protection of the rights and the wellbeing of EU citizens in the UK.”


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