Immigrants, Visa Waivers and Silver Bullets: The UK’s migration system post-Brexit


Months after it helped convince citizens to vote to leave the European Union (EU), migration remains at the heart ofpost-referendum politics in the UK. Newly minted Prime Minister Theresa May’s has made the decision to rule out introducing a points-based immigration system to the UK following the referendum result which has stirred media attention in Britain as the debate about the UK’s future immigration policy rages on.

May’s immigration blunder

May made the initial comments before her journey to Beijing to attend the 6 September G20 summit earlier this month. The points-system referred to is modelled after the Australian immigration system which sees immigrants being given points for their various skills, qualifications and backgrounds, as well as behaviour, as the basis for their potential residency in the state.  May’s statement that there was not yet any proof such a system worked, emphasized that there was no “silver bullet” solution to reducing immigration to the UK. Upon her return, the British cabinet confirmed that the points system would not be part of their immigration policy. May promised, however, “some control” over immigration.

This seems a softer message following May’s 31 August pledge to her cabinet, that restricting immigration will be at the heart of any Brexit negotiations.

EU response

May’s backtracking may be related to EU pressure on the European Single Market, with leaders across the EU stating that access to the Market, which many British financial services depend on, would require the guarantee of free movement of people across their borders for work, a key principle of the EU.

As no negotiations have yet begun, all the current British government has to go on to set out its future policies is the statements of politicians in France, Germany and other member states, and an EU Commission document detailing plans to potentially introduce a system similar to the US Esta visa waiver system for Britons visiting Schengen states. This would see UK citizens paying a small fee and completing a form to travel to EU states, a significant change from the previous system, under which UK citizens had simply to show their passport at the border.

Although this proposal is a pre-negotiation concept, Amber Rudd, current Home Secretary, has said that such an arrangement could not be ruled out as it would restrict the Brexit negotiations, highlighting the possibility of a hard-line response of the EU to the UK’s stance on EU immigration. Rudd also spoke about the cabinet’s commitment to reducing immigration, but refused to give details about how this would be done.

 “What I do think the British public voted for was to make sure that we reduce immigration from the European Union, that’s a given. We have to find a way of doing that. I wouldn’t necessarily say what it means to do with the single market, but what I would say is we have to work out how we can do that, while promoting and protecting the economy.”

UK and migration

The UK has seen high immigration in recent years, with as many as 333,000 people entering the country in 2015, the second highest influx on record. The figure for the year March 2015 –March 2016 is 327,000, a statistically insignificant drop over the previous year. With the vast majority of immigrants coming from EU Member States, the hardliners of the Brexit campaign who have argued blocking EU immigration would free up government resources are pushing for the UK to fully exit the Single Market so long as membership of the Market comes with any compromise on freedom of movement for EU citizens into the UK.

Immigration was central to the Vote Leave campaign, and was consistently listed as the most important issue for Britons in the months leading up to the referendum.  With prominent Vote Leave campaigners, such as the new Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, promising stricter EU immigration rules in the aftermath of Brexit, immigration is likely to be the most contested issue in the Brexit negotiations to come.

“Brexit means Brexit and that means delivering on their [voters’] instructions and restoring UK control over our laws, borders, money and trade.” said Johnson in his message for Change Britain, the successor group of the Vote Leave campaign, highlighting his call for a “hard Brexit.”

Post-Brexit migration policy in the making

Indeed, reduced immigration has become the motto of the entire cabinet. On Thursday last week, new Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) said that regardless of the deal that comes out of Brexit negotiations, EU immigration would have to be reduced greatly. He wanted to retain London’s role as a European financial centre but added:

“But we cannot accept uncontrolled free movement of people. That’s the political outcome of the referendum decision that was made.”

However, Hammond’s affirmation of a post-referendum clampdown comes at a moment when post-Brexit policies are still hotly contested. As recently as this Saturday, Change Britain backed down on the pledge that the British National Health Service would receive a 350m-a-week injection in the aftermath of Brexit. This pledge, like a reduction in the numbers of EU immigrants coming to the UK, was a key promise of the Vote Leave campaign, leading to questions of whether the immigration pledge is to be similarly watered down. With Article 50, the instigation of the process of leaving the EU, yet to be triggered by May, the future of British immigration policy is impossible to predict.

Eoghan Hughes

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