Will Brexit freeze immigration?

Photo by threefishsleeping used under Creative Commons

By Dimitra Stefanidou

Together with the free movement of capital, goods and services, freedom of movement for workers is one of the most fundamental principles of the European Union (EU). In fact, its founding treaty enshrines it as a cornerstone of EU citizenship.

The freedom of movement provision grants EU citizens the unconditional right to reside and work in other Member State countries, so a German can freely live in Spain and vice versa. Under the current EU regime host countries are not allowed to discriminate against foreign workers. This means they must treat them in the same way as their national workers, regarding wages, allowances, or other labour law rights.

EU citizens are also allowed to stay at the host state for a sufficient time to search for a job. They can also acquire permanent residency after living in the host state for five years non-stop.

Number of immigrants around Europe

According to a recent United Nations report, currently more than 1.3 million British people live in another country of the EU, whereas more than three million citizens from other EU Member States live in the UK. The British population has always been sceptical of the progression of the European project in general; and over the last decade, specifically of the freedom of movement provision which has brought thousands of people into the country.

As a result politicians have been trying for at least five years to reduce the numbers of immigrants coming into Britain, and following public pressure from anti-EU groups were eventually convinced to let the people have their say in the recent referendum. By voting to leave, Brexit’s supporters strongly believe that leaving the EU will reduce the number of incoming immigrants.

The question is what will happen to all those people after Brexit? The future of immigration and the free movement of people is one of the most important issues for negotiations between the UK and the bloc. As part of these talks a fair and reasonable solution must be adopted that ensures all those who have spent years working in another state, either in the UK or as a UK national overseas, will not lose their fundamental human rights or be forced to leave their homes and jobs.

Leading Brexit supporter Boris Johnson, wrote in his regular newspaper column that, “EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU,” and that, “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down…there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.”

However, as the battle to become the UK’s new prime minister intensifies these kinds of conciliatory statements about foreigners easily staying in the UK after Brexit are not welcome, neither with politicians nor the public. Shortly after Mr. Johnson’s article was published, he was forced to rule himself out of the leadership race as members of his own party worried he had “gone soft” on negotiations to remove the UK from the cycle of immigration and cross-border mobility.

The only certain thing in the Brexit negotiations is that anything mentioned at this point is just speculation. What will truly happen depends on the upcoming two years (or maybe more, as experts say) of negotiations between the UK and the EU about a settlement. Until that moment, things will remain as they are. Britain remains a member of the Union until this negotiation period expires.

Potential solutions

One possible solution to the immigration issue may be an agreement between the EU and the UK that allows free movement of people. And the bilateral agreement that Europe already has with Switzerland and Norway, which are not members of the European Union, was often touted as a possible outcome during the referendum campaign.

Under Norway’s deal it complies with the single market rules, contributes financially every year to the EU and allows for European citizens to move freely into its territory. In exchange, Norway is allowed to trade freely within the European area. Pretty much the same applies for Switzerland.

However, this is not always an easy relationship and not necessarily an ideal model. There has been a controversy between the two sides (Switzerland and the EU) in recent years as Switzerland wants to impose more restrictions on the right of free movement of people. In return, EU officials warn that doing so may mean barriers to Switzerland’s access to the single market.

Another option is the drafting of a new agreement between the two parties that will simply allow the free movement of workers between the UK and the EU. However, that may not be a useful deal for Britain as it wouldn’t provide for participation in the European single market regime and the fundamental freedoms and benefits that it guarantees. As a result, more restrictions and formalities (such as visa, passports and residency rules) will probably be applied for British people overseas.

Until Britain formally asks to leave and triggers official negotiations Europeans are on hold and look forward to seeing what happens next. The only thing we really know is that, whatever happens, it will probably affect and alter the lives of million people that live and work in both Britain, and across Europe.