'Let Brits be Belgian' - Juncker appeals for Brexit-hit EU staff

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British EU staff in Brussels should be given Belgian passports after Brexit if they want, Jean-Claude Juncker urged Belgium’s prime minister on Thursday, appealing him to end a policy of rejecting most requests.

President Juncker, whose European Commission employs nearly 1,000 Britons who will lose their EU citizenship when Britain leaves the bloc next March, made the appeal to premier Charles Michel directly during a debate in the European Parliament.

Praising Belgium’s generosity in hosting European Union institutions, Juncker referred to fears among his own staff that they may lose jobs and careers after Brexit. He told Michel:

“I would also like the Belgian authorities to demonstrate the same generosity when it comes to conferring Belgian nationality on the British officials who are here in Brussels.

“They deserve it. They deserve it. But, as I know that the prime minister is sometimes extremely generous, I am absolutely sure that he will take our wishes and remarks into account.”

Juncker last month gave British staff an assurance that they would not be fired once they cease to meet a normal criterion for getting an EU job, namely being an EU citizen.

Belgium can confer citizenship on people who live there for five years. But some Britons who have lived in Brussels for years, even decades, have had requests rejected on the grounds that, as EU staff, they fail Belgian residency tests because they have quasi-diplomatic status outside the local tax system.

Michel, who had delivered the latest in a series of speeches by EU national leaders to the Parliament outlining their visions of the bloc’s post-Brexit future, was guarded in his reply.

He acknowledged that there was “contradictory jurisprudence” on the subject in Belgium but his government was considering it.

One British voice speaking in the debate was less complimentary to the EU’s host.

Nigel Farage, whose UKIP party led the campaign for Brexit, forecast that the EU would break apart further -- and so could Belgium itself, whose French- and Dutch-speaking halves, he said, “dislike each other intensely”.

Michel retorted, in apparent reference to British political turmoil over Brexit and strains in relations among Britain’s constituent nations, that he would take no lessons from Farage.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald ; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Gareth Jones