The Liberal Democrat bill was soundly defeated February 8 by 332 votes to 290. A mere three Tory MPs, renowned Europhiles Ken Clarke, Tania Matthias and Andrew Tyrie, voted in favor. In the preceding debate, Ed Vaizey MP said he had received written assurances from Home Secretary Amber Rudd that EU citizens would be protected in any event.
In her letter, Minister Rudd said the status of EU citizens can only change after parliament has approved a new immigration system, and as a result, the "great repeal bill" would not change the UK's immigration system substantively.
"This will be done through a separate immigration bill and subsequent secondary legislation so nothing will change for any EU citizen, whether already resident in the UK or moving from the EU, without parliament's approval," she added.
Other members of the Commons were less convinced by such declarations, with Green MP Caroline Lucas saying the government's refusal to offer that guarantee in coded, legal form was "cruel and immoral," and suggesting Prime Minister Theresa May had refrained from doing so in order to use "people's lives" as a bargaining chip as "part of some wider deal."
Whatever the truth of the government's motivations, immigration experts are clear — EU nationals living in the UK who wish to remain where they are, must now apply for permanent residency.
Hayk Sayadyan, a solicitor at law firm Gulbenkian Andonian, told Sputnik the move was not surprising, or "terribly earth-shattering," given existing jurisprudence on the issue throughout Europe.
"Current EU rights around free movement are going to remain until the UK exits, which could be some time away while legal nuances are worked on — and even when things are finalized, I don't envisage people being kicked out. However, people must start preparing. It's an inconvenience to go through the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in staying, but it's worth doing now. The authorities will favor those who have worked throughout the time they've been in the UK, so it's important any work people have done is properly evidenced," Mr. Sayadyan said.
2/3 as MPs backed #article50bill Lords won't block it, but watch issues like rights for EU nationals, parliamentary vote on the final deal— Constitution Unit (@ConUnit_UCL) February 9, 2017
For those wishing to stay in the UK, Rose Carey, a partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, explains the length of time someone has been in the country is of vital importance.
"EU nationals who've lived in the UK for five years are eligible for permanent resident status, and should be applying now. No matter how long they intend to stay in the UK, it's worth it for the protections it gives — it will preclude them from immigration controls after the UK exits," Ms. Carey told Sputnik.
Applicants are likely to be accepted, and if they then spend 12 months as a resident, they can apply for UK citizenship. Things are less clear for nationals who've lived in the UK for less time, but Ms. Carey says they may be eligible to apply for EEA registration certificates, which confirms their status as an EU national, and protects them by EU treaty right.
Evidently, all is not lost for EU nationals in the UK — nonetheless, she finds the government's refusal to endorse the bill extremely regrettable.
"I think it's very sad indeed, and sends a clear message to EU nationals — who may already be feeling vulnerable in the wake of the referendum result — that they're not going to be protected by the government.
"It's worried a lot of people — one client contacted me anxious that her mother, a French national who has lived in the UK for 59 years, could be sent back to France. It's ridiculous that the lack of clarity on this point could make someone who's resided here so long feel nervous about their position," Ms. Carey concluded.