European Council President Donald Tusk said the European Union cannot enter into side talks about the status of EU citizens in the U.K., or British citizens in the EU, until the U.K. government triggers formal negotiations on its exit.
In a response to a letter from U.K. lawmakers requesting a side deal on the rights of U.K. and European citizens directly affected by Brexit, Mr. Tusk said he couldn’t, as asked, put the issue up for discussion at next month’s meeting of EU leaders.
“That would in effect mean the start of the negotiations already in December. The EU stands ready to do so but that can only happen on the condition that Article 50 has been triggered,” Mr. Tusk wrote, referring to the legal clause which would trigger the U.K.’s exit from the bloc.
“Let me reiterate, however, that the decision about triggering Article 50 belongs only to the U.K., which we fully respect.”
The letter to Mr. Tusk came from a group of 80 U.K. lawmakers, mainly from the Conservative Party. They included several people prominent in the Brexit campaign.
The U.K. government has said it would trigger Article 50 by March 2017, starting a formal two-year negotiating period with the EU on exit terms.
When she came into office, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out unilaterally offering EU citizens already in the U.K. for some time a guarantee they could stay, a position supported by some leading U.K. politicians, including Brexit champion-and current Foreign Secretary-Boris Johnson.
Mrs. May has said she wants to secure reciprocal agreements on the rights of U.K. nations in the EU and U.K. nationals in the EU quickly but only once the formal negotiations start.
However, on Monday, Politico reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel declined Mrs. May’s request to provide reciprocal assurances on the issue when they met in Berlin earlier this month.
In his letter, Mr. Tusk said he agreed with the U.K. lawmakers who had written, saying he also didn’t want to see U.K. and EU nationals treated as “bargaining chips” in the Brexit negotiations.
However he said the uncertainty had been created by the U.K. decision to leave the bloc and that a solution could be worked on once the U.K. decided to trigger Article 50.
“In your letter you state that the European Commission?are attempting to prevent negotiations, thereby creating ‘anxiety and uncertainty for the U.K. and EU citizens living in one another’s territories,'” Mr. Tusk wrote. “It is a very interesting argument, the only problem being that it has nothing to do with reality,” he said. “Would you not agree that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit.”