The EU’s chief negotiator has rejected an appeal by the UK’s Brexit secretary for the full gamut of citizens’ rights in the withdrawal agreement to be protected in the event of a no-deal exit.

In a clear signal from Brussels that it is not willing to countenance a “managed no deal”, Michel Barnier said the suggestion that the citizens elements could be carved out was “far from straight-forward” and that the focus should be on getting the Brexit deal ratified.

While emphasising that British nationals living in the EU would not be “left in the dark” about their rights in the event of the UK leaving without a deal, he insisted to Stephen Barclay that a range of problems existed in ringfencing the rights contained in the agreement, including the continued role of the European court of justice.

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, which has been rejected three times by the Commons, the ECJ would give rulings on the interpretation of the rights contained in the agreement. There would be no legal basis for such an arrangement in the event that the withdrawal agreement was not ratified by the Commons.

“Our joint efforts should remain focused on making sure that the withdrawal agreement will be ratified and will enter into force,” Barnier wrote. “We should not be distracted from this essential objective.”

The EU negotiator’s letter to Barclay came in response to a request from the British government for discussions to be opened on ringfencing the citizens’ rights aspects of the withdrawal agreement, a policy agreed by the Commons in an amendment tabled by the Conservative MP Alberto Costa.

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