Guest blog – Brexit and EU migration: where are we now?

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This blog provides an up-to-date account of discussions relating to post-Brexit immigration policy and its implications for Scotland. It is one of several migration-related blogs Dr Eve Hepburn has been publishing with SPICe. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

Ending free movement

As the House of Commons continues to debate whether and how the UK should exit the European Union, it is helpful to take stock of developments on European Economic Area (EEA) migration proposals, given their significant impact on Scotland’s communities and labour market.

Reducing immigration was a key argument in the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, and it has since been one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘red lines’ in UK-EU negotiations. The UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has found that EEA migration has had an overall positive impact on the UK’s economy, especially with regard to productivity and tax contributions.  However, it also recommended that there should be no preference for EEA citizens in the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system once free movement comes to an end.

Immigration white paper

The UK Government wishes to reduce EEA migration by channelling all future EEA migrants through the UK’s points-based immigration scheme (following any transition period).

In December 2018, the Home Office produced a white paper on immigration, which draws on the recommendations put forward by the MAC for a new post-Brexit immigration system. This includes:

  • ending freedom of movement and requiring EEA nationals to apply through the UK’s visa system
  • focussing on skilled worker routes, with a proposed £30,000 per year salary threshold
  • abolishing the cap on the number of skilled workers (coming through the ‘Tier 2’ route)
  • no low-skilled or sector-based migration routes to the UK, with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

The UK Government has stated there will be a year-long consultation on these proposals. It also published an Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill in December 2018, which repeals free movement in the UK.

Both the white paper and Immigration Bill have drawn criticism from business organisations. For instance, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) described the White Paper proposals as “a sucker punch for many firms right across the country” as they limit the ability of firms to recruit and retain EEA staff. Business organisations have also warned that the proposals will create labour market gaps amongst low-skilled or low-paid workers who do not meet the proposed £30,000 per year salary threshold, especially in the care, travel and hospitality sectors.

Furthermore, the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee published a report arguing that the Immigration Bill will “strip EU Citizens resident in the UK of their rights”, which would leave “individuals and families in a situation of precarity as to their futures.”

Settling EU nationals

The EU Settlement Scheme opened on 30 March 2019. It obliges all EU/EFTA nationals living in the UK to apply for ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled’ status through an online application system by 30 December 2020. ‘Settled status’ is similar to the ‘indefinite leave to remain’ status that currently exists within the UK immigration regime. Importantly, however, it guarantees fewer rights than free movement (i.e. loss of voting rights, loss of recourse to the European Court of Justice, reduced mobility rights).

Further, if EU/EFTA nationals in the UK fail to register before the deadline (which some vulnerable groups are at risk of doing), they may lose their entitlement to reside in the UK. For more information on the EU Settlement Scheme, please read our mini-briefing.

The impact on EU migration flows so far

The latest data from the ONS reveals that Brexit negotiations have already had a significant impact on EU migration flows in the UK. In its February 2019 quarterly report, the ONS reported that EU net migration has fallen to a level last seen in 2009. This is due to both a sharp decline in in-migration from EU countries, and an increase in out-migration (EU nationals leaving the UK, especially from Central and Eastern European countries).

Scottish advisory group on migration

In October 2018, the Scottish Government appointed an Expert Advisory Group (EAG) to advise on the implications of the proposed immigration changes for Scotland. The EAG has produced a report examining the impact of the UK’s immigration proposals on Scotland’s economy, population and society, finding that they could lead to a 30-50% reduction in net migration to Scotland over the next two decades.

The EAG also found that this overall reduction in EU migration varies across sector and place – with sectors reliant on low-paid labour, and remote and rural communities, being the hardest hit. EAG members have also warned that some remote communities may cease to exist if they are unable to attract migrant workers who are often “the only current contributor to local population growth.”

Deal versus No-Deal

The white paper and Immigration Bill, examined above, are both predicated on the UK agreeing to a Withdrawal Agreement. However, there is currently flux in the House of Commons about whether this will happen.

In the case of No Deal, the UK Government has said that it will not be bound by the implementation period set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, and it will seek to “end free movement as soon as possible.” EU/EFTA nationals resident in the UK prior to the UK leaving the EU will be entitled to apply for ‘settled status’. However, those arriving after Exit Day will have to apply through the UK’s immigration rules for a visa. EU and EFTA citizens who wish to visit on short-stays (less than 3 months) can continue doing so.

Another variable that may alter the UK Government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration rules is the outcome of future trade negotiations. The UK Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes MP, has suggested that other countries which strike trade deals with the UK could be granted preferential access for workers to enter the UK.

And what if the UK Parliament decides to revoke Article 50? In this case, we would see the continuation of free movement, which would necessitate a repeal of the Immigration Bill.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit crisis, we are likely to see continuing upheaval within the UK’s immigration system, and with it, an increased need for balanced, evidence-based information on the impacts of EU migration to inform the decisions that will be made.

Dr Eve Hepburn