Guarantee our rights by international treaty



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From our very first meeting with Michel Barnier, our ‘ring-fencing’ campaign was born. As soon as he uttered the words “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, we realised that no matter what would be negotiated in the Withdrawal Agreement, we would not be able to rely on the outcome of those negotiations until this Withdrawal Agreement had been ratified by both the British and European Parliaments.  


We, over five million EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU, had become hostages against the UK leaving the EU on a no-deal basis.

So what is ‘ring-fencing’?


Ring-fencing involves taking those parts of the Withdrawal Agreement which deal with Citizens’ Rights, and preserving them as the only agreement under Article 50.


Why is this important? Can’t each country just guarantee rights unilaterally?

For a start, there are lots of issues on which cooperation is needed – for example adding up people’s pension rights if they have worked in several EU countries, and accessing healthcare. 


Furthermore, it is essential to protect these rights with a single international treaty, to make sure all five million citizens on both sides of the Brexit divide are treated equally and fairly, and to ensure that rights cannot be degraded by future governments in any of the 28 countries involved.

The UK has already signed such treaties with Switzerland and the EEA EFTA states, which apply whether or not there is a deal.  These international treaties now give peace of mind and future protection to citizens from Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland who are living in the UK, and British citizens living in those countries.  The same should be done for EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU.

Why is it so urgent that this be done before Brexit?


After Brexit, it is legally not possible to make an agreement under Article 50.  Article 50 is special in the sense that the Council of the European Union can make an agreement

  • by ‘qualified majority voting’

  • to cover all matters to do with citizens’ rights

  • with consent of the European parliament. 

Outside of Article 50, however, an agreement 

  • would need unanimous voting

  • may not be able to cover the same range of rights – individual member states may instead want to determine many of these rights themselves

  • require ratification by all 27 national parliaments 

How can we achieve this?

The UK parliament actually voted unanimously for the ‘Costa Amendment’ on the 27th February 2019. This amendment stated that the UK would call on the EU to agree to ring-fence citizens’ rights. However, Michel Barnier has rejected the proposal, insisting that he is bound by the mandate from the EU Member States that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

So we need to continue to make the case in the EU Member States. On the 2nd April 2019, the Dutch parliament passed a similar motion calling for ring-fencing. We need more EU member states to follow suit. 

Both in March and April 2019 we have come very close to a No Deal Brexit without our rights being protected. This could be repeated again at the end of October 2019. No Brexit agreement, whether it is a full Withdrawal Agreement or a Ring-fenced agreement on citizens’ rights, can be rushed through very close to a no-deal deadline. The legal and practical hurdles are simply too many – as explained here.

If another extension is granted, the EU must agree to ring-fencing at the very beginning of the extension period to give time for the necessary steps to be taken. This agreement would be conditional. It would never come into effect if there is either a full Withdrawal Agreement or if there is no Brexit.


The time for fine words is over. If the UK and the EU are genuine about safeguarding both sets of their own citizens, they must agree, immediately, to take citizens’ rights out of the political arena taking steps to ring-fence them come what may. There is no other way of protecting them.

For more detailed information:

Finally, our publications library page lists our campaigning and lobbying documents all the way back to 2016.


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