It could be assumed that Theresa May’s three-day trip to China would be relatively “business as usual,” but it was only a matter of time before either the government, or Theresa May herself would ruffle some feathers in Brussels. That’s putting it lightly. 

Well into her trip to China, the prime minister is in midst of a new battle with Brussels, after she said that EU citizens who arrive to Britain during the post-Brexit transition period must not have the same rights as those who arrived before. 

Theresa May’s latest remarks are a surefire way of her locking horns with Brussels, who have offered a “status quo” transition period until December 2020, including free movement and citizens’ rights for those who settle in the UK during that period. 

Rules for new EU migrants could include mandatory work permits, requirements to register on arrival and restrictions on access to benefits, which would not apply to EU citizens who moved to the UK before Brexit. 

In December last year, both Britain and Brussels agreed a deal setting out the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British Expats on the continent. All EU nationals who have resided in the UK for more than five years will be expected to be granted settled status, giving them the right to remain in the country with the same access to public services as they have currently.

European migrants who have lived in Britain for a shorter period of time, but who arrive before the Brexit cut-off date, March 29 2019, will also be able to stay and receive a settled status once they have been in the UK for five years. 

At the time, No.10 said that it envisaged anyone arriving after Brexit would be able to continue to live, work and study in the UK during the transition period but would have to register, and the future immigration rules would have to be agreed as part of wider transition negotiations. 

Speaking to reporters in China regarding her latest stance on post-Brexit EU migration, Theresa May said the details were “a matter for negotiation for the implantation period, but I’m clear there is a difference between those who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is leaving.” 

The prime minister also said that she wanted to resist the idea that not much would change after the UK leaves the EU, putting her in an opposing position with chancellor to the exchequer, Philip Hammond, who said the aim was for “very modest changes” after Brexit. 

“What we’re doing now is doing the job that the British people asked the government to do, which is to deliver Brexit,” May said. “In doing that, they did not vote for nothing to change when we come out of the EU.”

In stark contrast, the EU believe that they agreed with the UK that EU citizens coming to the country before the end of the transition period would be covered on rights for EU nationals. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said “citizens’ rights during the transition is not negotiable. We will not accept that there are two sets of rights for EU citizens. For the transition to work, it must mean continuation of the existing acquis with no exceptions.” 

The prime minister said that she would contest the issue of long-term residency rights when transition negotiations begin next month. 

“When we agreed the citizens’ rights deal in December we did so on the basis that people who had come to the UK when we were a member of the EU had set up certain expectations,” May said. "It was right that we have made an agreement that ensured they could continue their life in the way they had wanted to - now for those who come after March 2019 that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU. I'm clear there is a difference between those people who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is no longer a member."

It wasn’t only Brussels who were perturbed by Theresa May’s remarks during her China visit. Nicolas Hatton, the co-founder of the3million, which represents EU citizens living in Britain, argued that the UK was effectively staying inside the EU until the end of the transition period, because it wanted to retain the benefits of membership till then. The question is, why is the UK leaving the EU in the first place if they still want the perks of remaining in the bloc? 

“I think there would be utter chaos if there is a distinction between those arriving by March 2019 and those arriving in transition because there is no way to make a distinction between those groups, so it could lead to widespread discrimination of EU citizens,” Hatton said, raising fears about access to jobs, ability to secure accommodation and having a functioning bank account.

Additionally, Labour MP and leading supported of the Open Britain campaign, Peter Kyle argued that EU citizens “should be welcomed rather than turned away” and said that they have made an “enormous contribution” to Britain, including to public services and the NHS. “For thousands of British businesses that depend on being able to recruit staff from across the EU, the prime minister’s latest comments will only increase the uncertainty created by Brexit,” said Kyle.