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Brexit Day—Is This the Dawning of the Age of Immobility?
BrexitDay January2020
Duncan C/Flickr

Many of those who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016 wanted Brexit to do one thing: dramatically curb immigration. On the eve of the United Kingdom finally leaving the European Union after seemingly endless political impasses and negotiations, it is still an open question what Brexit will mean for the scale and form of mobility across the Channel—and whether this will be for the better or the worse.

The withdrawal agreement, which sets out the terms on which the United Kingdom will leave at 11 pm on January 31, is expected to clear its final hurdles this week with votes in the European Parliament and Council. If approved, the United Kingdom will remain part of customs union and free market until the end of 2020, as part of a transition period.

This period will be critical to the future of UK migration. It marks a narrow window to negotiate an ambitious UK-EU trade deal, including free movement’s successor. It will also see the government put flesh on the bones of the “tough new Australian-style points-based system” promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And it could see a last-minute bump in flows to the continent as Britons rush to take advantage of their soon-to-expire free movement rights, or a last tranche of EU nationals flock to the United Kingdom.

What Will the EU-UK Immigration System Look Like?

The Johnson government is trying to use Brexit as an opportunity to position the United Kingdom as a major player in the global race for talent, but it may have underestimated the knock-on effects of ending free movement—and the extent to which it can move unilaterally.

The government has suggested that there will be no preference for EU nationals to come live and work in the United Kingdom, while acknowledging this stance could come unstuck when it comes to negotiations on the future trade relationship. For now, the government has focused its attention on skilled migration reforms. Its Global Talent visa, announced Monday, is intended to show that the country remains open to those with sought-after skills.

But Brexit could put sand in the gears of high-skilled mobility in unexpected ways.

Take higher education, a key priority of the new Global Talent visa. Universities claim that the routine use of part-time and short-term contracts means many promising researchers may not meet the conditions for skilled migration outside the free movement system. The Russell Group, which represents top universities, welcomed the government’s announcement it is reducing the salary threshold for skilled migrants precisely for this reason.

Brexit could also reduce the attractiveness of UK destinations to top academics who have their pick of global destinations; for instance, if the country fails to negotiate (or is unwilling to pay) for continued membership in the educational mobility program Erasmus or the Horizon Research Framework, which many universities rely on for funding.

In sectors such as tech and finance, the big question will be whether London maintains its global edge, which will depend on the overall trade deal package and whether businesses relocate. The overall attractiveness of the United Kingdom to skilled workers could slip—no matter what migration policy decisions the government takes.

On the low-skilled end of the spectrum, sectors from hospitality to the care sector rely heavily on EU nationals. In some regions of the United Kingdom this concentration is especially pronounced. While these sectors will not see the mass shortages many have predicted, burdens could fall on employers tasked with differentiating between EU nationals with different types of status.

Meanwhile, there has been enthusiasm in some camps that Brexit could reopen pathways for lower-skilled workers from outside the European Union. Curry house owners, for instance, reportedly voted ‘Leave’ in part because they thought it would make it easier to bring in chefs and waiters from India who currently do not qualify for visas.

But this is likely to be one area where EU negotiators push for EU preference in some form, such as sector-based quotas or lower-income thresholds. A points-based system could also allow for subtle forms of EU preference, such as affording greater weight to EU qualifications or to English (widely taught across the region) skills. But this may lack the symbolic punch European negotiators desire.

How Will Current Populations Shape Future Movements?

Citizens’ rights—securing residence and social rights for EU nationals in the United Kingdom and UK nationals in the European Union—has long been a priority on both sides. But lost in the weeds of these negotiations is how students, workers, business owners, and pensioners who built their lives around free movement stand to lose.

Despite the long lead time UK and EU Member State governments have had to develop registration systems, concerns remain that administrative and design barriers could mean a sizeable portion of mobile nationals on both sides fail to secure formal status. The result would mean people locked out of benefits and services—or even vulnerable to deportation, as previous Migration Policy Institute research has discussed.

This issue has turned into an eleventh-hour challenge. Implementation headaches with the UK Settled Status scheme have led UK parliamentarians to force the Johnson government’s first defeat (even though the amendment was subsequently overturned). The European Parliament called for reassurances from the UK government, and has promised to return to this issue in future negotiations.

A lesser noted issue is how this will affect future movements. The period since the 2016 referendum has already seen an ebb in EU nationals moving to the United Kingdom. This could set the tone for a further reduction in volume, but also a shift in the form EU-UK mobility will take, from fluid, temporary movements to less flexible migration and more immobile populations.

For one thing, UK individuals and families who split their lives across the European Union will have to choose one “home.” This could affect children studying away from their parents, or people who run businesses out of several countries.

In the United Kingdom, EU residents who have been granted the thinner “presettled status” instead of full settled status because of lack of documentary evidence could find themselves unable to spend periods abroad for fear of losing their residence status.

And in retirement destinations such as Spain, retirees who rely on family members to come and stay at times of need could find themselves in greater need of formal care if Brexit makes these types of movement more difficult.

Yet in the run-up to the end of the transitional arrangement there is another possibility: that Britons and EU nationals alike take advantage of the transition period to move and secure residence rights before the deadline. We could see a “closing down sale” before these populations become more immobile.

Brexit and the Future of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Perhaps the biggest unknown is how people will feel about immigration in the post-Brexit world. There are some signs that the saliency of immigration issues in the United Kingdom has declined in the wake of the referendum vote. But it is unclear whether this shift reflects greater openness to immigration or optimism that Brexit will lead immigration to fall. Expectations are high among those who voted Leave and others in the anxious middle; public trust could be undermined if the coming years see no real difference in overall immigration admissions, especially against the backdrop of a country deeply wounded and divided by the referendum result.

And it is unlikely that Brexit will lessen the anxiety at the heart of communities that have undergone rapid change: for these areas, greater investments in language training and social cohesion could be what makes the difference.

On the other hand, an increase in illegality and chaos in the form of major numbers of EU nationals unable to secure their status to remain in the United Kingdom could upset both those anxious about immigration and cosmopolitan elites. This is already being described as “Windrush on steroids,” in reference to the recent scandal where longstanding elderly Commonwealth residents were issued deportation letters. A growth in illegal work either because employers are confused about how to check the status of EU nationals (or prefer not to) could further chip away at trust.

Ultimately, it is unclear whether Brexit will allow the United Kingdom to cast the net wider for the global workers it hopes to attract, or will deepen the moat around the island. Either way, Brexit is likely to spark new forms of mobility—and immobility—in the years to come.