LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 on Wednesday afternoon, paving the way for Britain to begin the formal two-year exit process from the EU.
Many questions remain as to how upcoming negotiations between the UK and EU will shape major areas of policy after Brexit.
While many parts of existing EU law will initially be wrapped into UK law under the “Great Repeal Bill,” Britain will have the freedom to try and shape its own policy on touchstone issues including immigration — which is often cited as a major reason Britons voted to leave the EU in the first place.
So what will immigration policy look like after Brexit? Business Insider spoke to Dr. Patricia Hogwood, a reader in European Politics at the University of Westminster, who explained some of the options on the table for May and her cabinet — as well as some of the hurdles the prime minister will have to clear during negotiations.
What will happen to EU nationals who are already in Britain?
May and senior cabinet colleagues have consistently refused to guarantee the right to remain to the 3 million European Union nationals who already live in the UK.
Trade minister Liam Fox has described EU nationals living in the UK as one of the government’s “main bargaining chips” in upcoming negotiations, and May has argued that the UK would be left “high and dry” in negotiations by guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals without receiving similar assurances for UK nationals living in the EU.
The consensus appears to be, however, that May is unlikely to follow through with the implicit threat of deporting EU nationals from the UK after Brexit.
I don’t think for a minute [May] would start to deport current EU immigrants en masse
“I don’t think she intends to exclude EU nationals,” Hogwood said. “She wants to hold this issue back as a bargaining chip, which has gone down very badly with European partners, and it’s also raised a lot of concerns in the UK from EU residents.
“I don’t think for a minute she would start to deport current EU immigrants en masse, so I think she is prepared to give concessions to the EU. It doesn’t make sense to say during negotiations, ‘Well I won’t allow EU nationals to stay in the UK,’ because that would invite reciprocal sanctions on UK residents living in EU countries,” she said.
Business immigration lawyer Adam Williams, a partner at law firm DMH Stallard, also told Business Insider that it was “it is unlikely that we will end up with the government taking a short, sharp, hard line in relation to removing the rights” of European nationals to work in the UK.
When will May guarantee residency rights to EU nationals?
The question of when, during the next two years, May would be able to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK is a difficult one, because even the agenda for Brexit negotiations has not yet been agreed, and the UK and EU have different priorities.
“The UK and Europe want different things,” Hogwood said. “Most of the European heads of state want a guarantee EU residents’ rights in the UK first, and want to settle that quickly. They would also like to see some progress on how to calculate how much UK will pay the EU on exit.”
Meanwhile, “the UK would prefer to get the idea of free trade settled — so I can see a conflict even over the agenda, over which issue we resolve first,” Hogwood said.
“At the moment we have no information about potential agenda and that won’t be fixed until Article 50 has been triggered at the very earliest. I’m sure they have got plans ready, but it’s not in the public domain. So we can’t really say at the moment how soon this issue is likely to be resolved.”
What about tourists coming from the EU?
The Home Office is proposing the idea of an electronic visa waiver scheme for EU citizens visiting Britain, similar to the US electronic system which fast-tracks visitors from certain preferred countries, according to Hogwood.
She said the Home Office “would want to facilitate tourism and people coming into spend their money in the consumer sector, but to lock down labour immigration as far as possible.”
What will happen to EU immigration?
May has pledged to end EU freedom of movement after Brexit, the policy which allows EU citizens to move to, live in, and work in EU member states without having to apply for visas. It is one of the union’s founding principles.
Hogwood says there are “several ideas running around” about what will replace freedom of movement after Brexit, and divisions in the cabinet about how to regulate the flow of EU workers into Britain.
Many ministers who supported Remain are advocating a “Free Movement Minus” regime, which imposes only minimal restrictions on free movement
“The ministers who supported Remain tend to advocate as few restrictions on EU migrants, workers, and people already resident in the EU as possible,” she said.
Those cabinet ministers are advocating a “Free Movement Minus” regime, which imposes only minimal restrictions on free movement, Hogwood said. It would consist of a cap on migrant numbers and an emergency break if they felt that too many were coming in.
Other ministers however, want to end freedom of movement altogether.
Hogwood said: “The pro-Brexit ministers want to end free movement and introduce a work permit system for EU citizens as well as non-EU citizens. The government would then decide how many EU citizens would be allowed into the UK every year to take up a job offer — they would have to have a job offer.
Even though May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Theresa May supported the Remain campaign, Hogwood said they are expected to prefer this plan.
Earlier this week, Brexit Secretary David Davis admitted on TV that Britain’s cap on migrants from the European Union post-Brexit is going to constantly increase or decrease, depending on when the government sees fit.
Will certain sectors be more adversely affected than others?
The government is reportedly considering a sectorial work permit system for incoming EU migrants, which would mean that labour migrants faced different rules depending on what sector they work in. Ministers intend to consult businesses and industry on the idea during the summer, Hogwood said, adding that — from limited evidence — the government “looks set” on favouring this approach.
She said, however, that the scheme would be “very, very complicated” to implement, and said an attempt by the EU to introduce a similar scheme in 2016 — called the blue card directive — to recruit highly-skilled labour into Europe had been unsuccessful.
“It looks as though the UK is set on a highly restrictive and complicated system that would be very difficult to implement”
“The EU’s blue card directive was supposed to recruit highly-skilled labour into the EU, but it turned out to be very un-competitive with countries like the US,” she said.
“It just wasn’t very attractive to highly-skilled workers. If highly-skilled workers are hedged around with caveats and facing difficult, complicated residency rules, they will prefer to go to the US, which has a system of preferring highly-qualified individuals, rather than treating them sector-by-sector.”
Hogwood added: “It looks as though the UK is set on a highly restrictive and complicated system that would be very difficult to implement.”
Will EU citizens have to apply for the same visas as non-EU citizens?
“I think some preferential deal will have to be cut for EU citizens during the Brexit negotiation process”
Hogwood said: “There is one proposal at the moment that EU citizens should come through exactly the same work permit channels as non-EU citizens, but that would be very, very costly to implement. Many economists are quite aghast at the thought that that would apply to incomers whether they were EU citizens or not.”
“I think some preferential deal will have to be cut for EU citizens during the Brexit negotiation process. Though Theresa May is likely to prefer a work permit system for all, I think there needs to be some kind of concession for EU workers,” she said.
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