Johnson and May, although on opposite sides pf the referendum campaign, have both promised to reduce immigration post-Brexit

Eoghan Hughes

Months after it helped convince citizens to vote to leave the European Union (EU), migration remains at the heart of post-referendum politics in the UK. One promise of the Brexiteers was that a points system would be brought in to gauge the usefulness of various applicants for immigration. Another promise was that the freedom of movement of EU citizens into the UK would stop. However the newly minted but not so shiny 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, largely an exercise in trying to keep the UK relevant on the international stage and assure international partners that Britain would not become a disconnected island. 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. So far there are less bullets, silver or otherwise, coming out of Westminster, and more vague promises.

EU response

EU Commission HQ, Brussels

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 negotiations have yet to begin, all the current British government has to go on to set out its future policies are statements from 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 once the Brexit process is complete after two years of negotiations. This would see UK citizens paying a small fee and completing an online document 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.

The system depicted here, with UK and EU citizens using the same queue, will almost certainly cease to exist over the next two years. 

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 by the EU to the UK’s stance on EU immigration. Rudd also spoke about the cabinet’s commitment to reduce 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.”

However reducing immigration is certain to come with a price, and high much will the British public be willing to pay?

UK and migration

Refugees in Calais, seen here camped next to a fence built to prevent them crossing to the UK using the port tunnel, are some of the most talked about people in British Media.

The UK has actually seen quite 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  March 2015–March 2016 is 327,000, an 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 “colourful” 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

One Brexit Pledge that has already driven away

Indeed, reduced immigration has become the motto of the entire cabinet. On Thursday last week, Hammond, the 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 up in the air. As recently as this Saturday, Change Britain backed down on its pledge to inject 350m-a-week into the British National Health Service 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 or even flush away. There is little room for optimism in this. The overwhelming desire by at least half of the British population to make their island more difficult to reach leaves even less room for a compromise that will see EU citizens continue to enjoy the freedom of London, Edinburgh, Belfast or Cardiff. Threats of economic hardship did not steer them clear of a Brexit vote and we have no reason to suppose it will keep them from leaving the Single Market. However 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, and with many years yet for negotiations to be finalised, maybe we can still hope that the lonely island will be looking outwards again.

Click here for more by Eoghan Hughes.

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