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Brussels has threatened the UK with legal action over what it sees as the failure to fully apply EU rules on the free movement of people, in a sign of the bloc’s determination to hold Britain to its commitments on citizens’ rights.
The European Commission on Thursday said it had opened “infringement proceedings” against the UK, a formal process that can lead to countries being hauled before the European Court of Justice if they do not correct errors in how they apply EU law.
Its complaints include that Britain is too onerous in the re-entry bans it imposes on people who are deported, that it sets unfair restrictions on the right of EU citizens’ family members to live in the UK, and that it makes it too difficult to claim jobseeker’s allowance.
The commission said the problems needed to be addressed or they could undermine guarantees on citizens’ rights that the EU and UK agreed as part of Britain’s withdrawal treaty.
“The commission considers that there are several shortcomings in the United Kingdom’s implementation of treaty provisions on freedom of movement of EU citizens, freedom of movement of workers and freedom of establishment,” a spokesperson said. “These shortcomings have an impact on the current rights of EU citizens in the UK.”
The protection of citizens’ rights was one of the most sensitive issues during negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU, and the commission’s move underlines Brussels’ intent to be strict in policing the agreement.
The EU fears that weaknesses in how Britain applies the rules now could undermine the permanent guarantees built into the Brexit treaty, which includes numerous references to European law.
“On substance, the commission is of the view that the UK has, over the last few years, limited the scope of beneficiaries of EU free movement law in the United Kingdom, as well as the possibilities for EU citizens and their family members to appeal administrative decisions restricting free-movement rights,” the institution said.
Under the terms of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period, Brussels has the right to launch and pursue infringement proceedings as if Britain were still a member state. After the transition ends on December 31, the EU can still open new proceedings for up to four years, but only dealing with past issues.
EU officials said the problems came to light through complaints received from citizens and compliance checks. Brussels has been in touch with the UK on some of these issues since 2014.
Britain has four months to address Brussels’ concerns, otherwise the EU will give it a further warning. Failure to act then would lead to the case going before the ECJ, with the possibility that the UK could be fined for non-compliance.
“We have received the letter, and we are considering it,” a UK spokesperson said.
This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/c33730c8-8499-4ade-93bd-ec42411cc5f8