Brussels could pay EU nationals’ application fees to stay in UK

Juncker said to sympathise with proposal to cover expected £72 cost to seek ‘settled status’

Brussels could seek the moral high ground by covering the application costs of EU nationals who want to stay in the UK after Brexit, under proposals being discussed at the highest levels of the European commission.

The UK Home Office has threatened to charge a £72 fee for applicants seeking so-called “settled status” in the UK, which grants them indefinite leave to remain. Applicants will have to demonstrate five years’ continuous residence and pass a criminal record test.

It has emerged that the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has expressed sympathy with a suggestion that Brussels could cover the fees if the UK does not make a more generous offer during further negotiations this year.

According to EU sources, Juncker agreed in a meeting with the European parliament’s Brexit steering group to personally take up the issue of the charges with Theresa May. However, he is said to have recognised that Brussels may need to look at funding the costs through the EU budget.

EU and UK negotiators are talking through a host of loose ends that remain over the first-phase issues – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border – along with topics such as Euratom, which governs the movement of nuclear materials, that have yet to be substantively discussed.

A draft treaty putting the agreements on the three first-phase issues into legal language is due to be published within weeks.

In November the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, warned the UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, that a family of five could face a bill of £360 – “a very significant amount for a family on low income” – under the UK government’s planned application fees for settled status.

The full details of the UK’s new online application process is expected to be announced within days. The government has said it intends to charge “no more than the cost of a passport” for most applicants.

EU nationals who have already successfully applied for UK permanent residence documents will not face a further fee when they convert to “settled status”.

Applicants who are rejected will be able to appeal and the Home Office has said its default position would be to grant settled status applications.

It has been reported that the Home Office is struggling to beef up its immigration staffing levels to deal with applications. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, told MPs last year that 700 extra immigration caseworkers had been recruited and there were hopes to recruit an extra 500 by this April. However, experts have said these numbers fall well short of what may be required.

It is unclear how many of the three million EU nationals in the UK will seek settled status. The numbers could be inflated by the insistence from eastern and central EU member states that the terms of the withdrawal agreement on citizens’ rights should apply to those who arrive in the UK right up until the end of the transition period, which is likely to be 31 December 2020 at the earliest.