BRUSSELS - On the first anniversary of Britain's decision to leave the European Union, leaders from the bloc Friday concluded a summit in Brussels with questions about the residency rights of EU citizens in Britain once it exits the regional grouping.
Addressing the bloc this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the fate of the 3 million EU citizens who call Britain home. In an offer to guarantee their rights, May said, “I want all those EU citizens who are in the U.K., who have made their lives and homes in our country, to know that no one will have to leave. We won’t be seeing families split apart.”
The offer gives EU nationals who have been living in Britain for at least five years the same rights they now enjoy.
EU Council President Donald Tusk, however, said, "My first impression is that the U.K. offer is below our expectations and risks worsening the situation for our citizens.”
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters the offer was “a first step" but that it was "not sufficient."
Exit talks between Britain and the EU started Monday and must be concluded within two years. It was the first summit since Britain triggered Article 50, the official notification to leave the bloc, in March.
Despite challenges facing the EU, such as the rise of Eurosceptic movements that oppose more power for the bloc, and the recent election in Britain where conservatives failed to get a stronger mandate for a hard Brexit,
EU leaders say things appear to be looking up. That assessment came as the European Central Bank informed them that after years of stagnation, the economy is growing, investments are increasing and millions of jobs have been created.
Terrorism and migration, however, still concern both EU leaders and citizens. Days before the summit, authorities thwarted a terrorist attack on the central train station in Belgium’s capital city, highlighting once again the ongoing threat of what EU Council President Tusk called “home-grown radicalization.”
On migration, Tusk said that a review was needed on the issue of central Mediterranean Sea crossings, saying the situation remains critical. Migrant arrivals to Europe have increased by 26 percent since last year, said Tusk and that close to 2,000 people have lost their lives since the start of this year.
At the same time, the EU had to start infringements procedures against Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary for not taking part in a migrant relocation plan.
Tusk said, “The only result that matters to us is to put a definitive end to this tragic situation. Leaders agreed that everyone will work harder in the coming weeks to better coordinate our efforts and support Italy more.”
With financial support from the EU, the Libyan coast guard is being trained to limit the number of people crossing by boat; but, a United Nations Security Council report released this month said the Libyan coast guard is directly involved in abuses and human rights violations against migrants.
Villads Zahle of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles says it’s disturbing that the EU would leave migrants at the mercy of the Libyan coast guard.
“We have moved from a place of how to protect people to how to escape responsibility. We know what the solutions are; it’s not rocket science; but, as long as we are seeing a race to the bottom, how can we make it as hard as possible to accommodate these people — then we are not moving towards a solution," he said.
EU leaders also agreed to a permanent defense structure and investment of $1.6 billion a year. French President Emmanuel Macron called the common defense plans “historic.” Britain always opposed the idea, preferring the NATO alliance; but, with Britain set to leave the EU, efforts for more EU defense integration have accelerated.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the summit that the new defense structures will not undermine NATO, but collaborate with it and that it creates an opportunity for better integration within the EU for “those member states that are not members of NATO.”
The leaders also decided that Britain-based EU agencies would be relocated to another country in the bloc, and to extend sanctions on Russia for six months because of the crisis in Ukraine and the deadlocked Minsk peace process aimed at ending hostilities there.