by GK Strategy 6th August, 2018
3 min read

What does the future hold for EEA Migration post-Brexit?

Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee released its interim report on policy options for future migration from the European Economic Area. The report concluded that ministers had not explored all options to control migration whilst remaining in the EU’s Single Market. More pertinently, the committee also emphasised that the Government risked “being caught up in a rushed and highly politicised [immigration] debate” in the build-up to a Parliamentary Brexit vote.

Where does the Government Stand?

In her Mansion House speech, the Prime Minister made it abundantly clear that ending the free movement of people was a negotiating red-line. Since then, the Government has kept its cards close to its chest and repeatedly delayed publications of its immigration proposals. Therefore, businesses still have little clarity on whether EU citizens will receive preferential treatment regarding immigration status post-Brexit.

What’s the holdup?

On the issue of preferential treatment, Cabinet Ministers are bitterly divided. Certain ministers remain open to concessions on free movement in return for increased access to EU trade markets. On the other hand, Brexit-supporting ministers want the Government’s stance on immigration to remain firm.

It is reported that Home Secretary Sajid Javid ripped up his predecessor’s proposal for a “labour mobility partnership”. Rudd’s proposal would have given EU citizens automatic visas. However, Javid favours a more restrictive universal points-based system. Significantly, experts warn that the sheer size of the change involved – from market managed to centrally controlled migration – means Whitehall does not have the capabilities to design and implement a managed, quota-based system in the immediate term.

Buried in the Government’s White Paper was a proposal for a new mobility framework that allows businesses and professionals to provide services in both the UK and EU. This equates to a limited form of free movement related to work and study. However, it’s uncertain whether this proposal will survive the negotiations.

All in all, the framework for post-Brexit immigration is causing major headaches across Whitehall. The Government is grappling to meet Leave voters’ demands, whilst also delivering on the UK economy’s requirements of maintaining access to EU skills and labour markets, which are crucial to the supply chains of multiple sectors.

It is no surprise then, that business leaders feel the resultant uncertainty is having a detrimental effect on the economy. Indeed, a recent report published by GK identified a significant drop in the number of Eastern European workers searching for UK Jobs, with the NHS and Construction sectors, in particular, feeling the effects.

So, what are the Government’s options?

  • Creating a Work Permit System for EU Nationals- Reflecting the current non-EEA system, EAA applicants would be measured against various criteria designed to assess their eligibility for work or study. This option, favoured by Brexiteers, would control numbers. However, it does not offer permits for low-skilled EEA workers meaning that businesses will have to find low-skilled labour domestically, which may have profound implications for the economy.
  • Expanding Work Permit System to offer favourable terms to EU Nationals- Given the economy’s reliance on low-skilled workers, the Government is actively considering how to introduce such a regime that would enable immigration numbers to be controlled and industry’s demands to be met. But, the major challenge is the time and resources required to implement such a regime.
  • EEA/EFTA “Emergency Brake” Arrangement- Under the EEA Agreement politicians have argued that the UK, if it remained in the EEA post-Brexit, would be able to initiate an “Emergency Brake” on EU Migration. However, the Government sees pursuing single market membership as being incompatible with the referendum result, so this option seems to be off the table.
  • A Points based system- Such a model would allow immigrants to be allocated a visa if they reached a certain points threshold. The criteria set by Government, focuses on characteristics such as age, occupation, work experience and education. This was the central proposal of the Leave campaign. However, Theresa May has rejected it, claiming that it would not guarantee control of total immigration numbers.

Economically, ensuring labour mobility and flexibility is one of the foundations of an efficient and competitive economy. With sectors of the economy already facing skill shortages, the case to provide preferential treatment to EU citizens is an economically sound proposal, but politically, a nightmare.

This remains one of Theresa May’s greatest dilemmas. It’s one thing wishing to provide EU citizens with special treatment but quite another having the political flexibility to do so. The European Research group, a Conservative Brexit pressure group of 40-60 MPs, touted as the “official opposition” argues that such an approach “would lead to the worst of all worlds”.

Therefore, ending free movement is not just a negotiating red line, but appears to both be a political objective, and one associated with May’s survival as Prime Minister. Accordingly, the question is not whether Theresa May supports such an approach, but once again, whether she can get it through her party. Only time will tell!


For more information on how GK can help you stay ahead of relevant political developments, contact kit@gkstrategy.com 

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