From next month, non-EU citizens wanting to marry a Briton or other UK resident will have to pass an English test before they are allowed to enter the country.
It is aimed at promoting integration and to combat sham marriages.
But other EU citizens living and working here will be able to bring a foreign partner from anywhere in the world without them having to show they can speak English.
It is because the spouse of an EU citizen is automatically given the same right to free movement under the Union’s rules.
In contrast, any one wanting to marry a British citizen will have to pass the test because free movement does not apply while an EU member is in their home country.
Liberty, the civil rights group, called it a “perverse” loophole that will better protect the rights of European migrants than Britons in their own country. It also warned the language requirements in general could breach human rights laws over the right to family life. The group is backing Lord Avebury, the Liberal Democrat peer who will lay a motion in the House of Lords today effectively calling for the tests to be scrapped.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said: “The closer you look at this misconceived policy the more perverse and unfair it seems.
“Exposing sham marriages is a worthy aim but this proposal will punish British nationals merely for falling in love with someone from another country. Is splitting up genuine families really a legitimate method of immigration control?”
The tests are due to come in to effect on November 29. They will apply to any spouse coming from a non-English speaking country outside the EU.
They will have to achieve a certain level of English, expected to involve up to 50 hours tuition, before they are granted a visa and will have to demonstrate both reading and writing skills.
The free movement rules will also exempt those marrying citizens from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, who along with the EU make up the European Economic Area and enjoy similar rights.
A Liberty briefing paper said: “Perhaps most perversely, these proposed reforms will discriminate against British citizens who wish to be joined by an overseas spouse and in favour of EEA nationals who have settled here and wish to do the same.
“In essence this leads to the perverse outcome that EEA nationals who are resident in the UK will have their right to a private and family life better protected than British citizens.”
Lord Avebury said: “The Government says that pre-entry language testing will bring opportunities for foreign spouses and partners of British citizens and settled persons in the UK, but for those who can’t access adequate English language courses in their country of origin it means long-term, perhaps permanent, separation of families including children.”
Damian Green, Immigration Minister said: “Being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle in the UK — that is why we are making it compulsory for migrant spouses and partners to demonstrate they can before we grant them a marriage visa.
“Speaking English promotes integration into British society and broadens opportunities. The new rules will help ensure that migrant spouses are able to participate in British life from the outset and integrate more easily into our society.
“We are asking applicants to be able to understand and speak a basic level of English – I believe this is a reasonable requirement that does not breach Human Rights.”