E.g., 06/19/2024
E.g., 06/19/2024
When the Dust Settles: Migration Policy after Brexit
Brexit ThreeFishSleeping Flickr

The seismic shocks from British voters’ decision last week to quit the European Union are being felt across the United Kingdom and beyond, from 10 Downing Street to EU headquarters in Brussels and stock markets around the globe—with more aftershocks to come in the weeks and months ahead.

The economic fallout of the June 23 vote to leave, supported by 52 percent of the electorate (with a higher than expected turnout of 72 percent), was immediate: A major selloff in sterling, plunging stock markets from the Hang Seng and the DAX to the Dow Jones, and near-consensus predictions of a UK recession.

The political ramifications have been equally fast-moving: Shortly after being confronted with the defeat of the Remain campaign he led, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, turning over leadership of the United Kingdom and his deeply divided Conservative Party to an as yet unknown successor (although most observers believe it will be Leave champion Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London). The opposition Labour Party, which campaigned for Remain, did not escape the turmoil. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a vote of no confidence. Meanwhile, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, immediately pledged to prepare legislation for an independence vote for Scotland, which could portend the break-up of the United Kingdom.

What will take far more time to sort out is what Brexit means for migration policy. Voters were polarized and clearly demarcated by age and geography. Remain voters were more likely to be young or from a minority background and living in London and other cities, while Leave voters were older and dominated in the regions of England and Wales, losing heavily only in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Brexit campaign, whose leaders will be major players in the post-Cameron government, essentially offered two major pledges: limits on immigration and freedom from Brussels.

Sending a Clear Message

The key driving force behind Leave’s success was significant hostility to immigration, which galvanized a coalition of those implacably opposed to migration (around one-quarter of the public) with a further fourth of voters who are anxious about the cultural and economic impacts and lack confidence in the government’s ability to manage migration competently, which they blame on being part of Europe and unable to act unilaterally. Analysis of public opinion suggests that immigration is a “state of the nation” issue and that many other concerns are refracted through it. However, the signal in the noise is crystal clear: immigration must be better controlled. Political leadership—and the leading Brexiteers Johnson and Michael Gove are natural centre-right liberals—will have to accommodate this reality.

Looking ahead, the post-Cameron government must actively address short- and long-term considerations. In the short term, the most pressing question is the rights of European Union (EU) nationals currently living in the United Kingdom, both immediately and once formal withdrawal from the Union occurs—a process that could take two years to complete from when the government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. (Cameron has left the decision of when to pull that trigger to his successor, although the pressure to do so quickly has been rising from EU leaders and some European governments.)

In his resignation speech, Cameron promised stability for EU nationals living in the United Kingdom but his ability to make good on promises is limited by his lame-duck status. In his own remarks, Johnson stopped short of pledging permanent residence rights. The complicating factors are numerous:

  • Policymakers will have to decide a cutoff date to qualify for residence (for moral, practical, and legal reasons, mass expulsion of EU nationals is vanishingly remote).
  • Given lack of a UK population register, officials will have to work out how to verify those living in the United Kingdom.
  • There are very substantial rights questions that must be decided, including under what criteria family members of European nationals not currently living in the United Kingdom will have the right to join their relatives.
  • Renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union will encompass the rights of EU nationals in the United Kingdom alongside UK nationals resident in EU Member States.

A simple truth attaches to these policy questions: once decisions have been made, behavioral change will ensue. Immigrant communities will adjust to the decisions—some EU migrants may leave because of economic turmoil, others will seek to gain UK residence for themselves and their families.

Managing Borders and Immigration Levels

Border issues are among the other complicated agenda items that will have to be addressed in the short term. Among the most important: juxtaposed border controls in Calais that allow UK officials to check identity documents in France; the agreement on movement between Gibraltar and Spain; and what occurs at the northern/southern Ireland border. This latter question includes whether the Common Travel Area between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, which predates the European Union, can survive—a question with special relevance for any future referendum on Scottish independence.

The issue of Calais, where thousands of migrants have massed hoping for entry into the United Kingdom, is likely to prove politically contentious. Talks with France will occur against the backdrop of a 2017 French presidential election that is likely to become toxic, with National Front leader Marine Le Pen regularly attacking the Hollande administration over the migrant situation in Calais and vowing to lead a “Frexit.”

Longer-term migration policy considerations will be shaped by two factors: Firstly, the place of migration in the negotiation of a new relationship with the European Union. Other non-EU countries, such as Norway, have particular agreements with the European Union on migration as part of a broader deal, for example. Second, the degree to which the post-Cameron government can achieve public consent on migration policy while governing responsibly.

These two factors run against each other. The political imperative from the Brexit vote is not so much “whether” there will be controls on EU immigration but “how much.” The instincts of leading Conservative Brexiteers are often surprising liberal on migration, something not front and center in the Leave campaign (some even support continuing free movement with Europe by proposing joining the European Economic Association or European Free Trade Association). However, the Leave coalition includes Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party, who advocate very tough and deep control—and the public voted for control. Broadly speaking, the stronger the controls on EU migration, the less favorable a trade deal the United Kingdom can expect to negotiate.

The likely negative economic impacts of substantially reduced immigration (at least at an aggregate level and for certain sectors such as hospitality and social care) also will shape the policy response. Even as the majority of the Leave coalition and the media have demanded visible, stringent, and hard migration controls, the factors outlined above suggest the reality will be new controls but lighter than perhaps many expect as the government balances responsible and responsive government. To achieve this without alienating those expecting hard controls and a massive reduction in immigration will require authentic, persuasive, and thoughtful political leadership.

Practically, it is likely that a points-based system applying to all incoming immigrants will be introduced. This is likely to mean an expansion of the existing system currently used for non-EU migrants, in concert with adjustment of the government’s headline policy of a net annual migration target in the “tens of thousands.”

Effects on Future Flows?

Finally, what does Brexit mean for future patterns of migration from Europe to the United Kingdom? We can only plausibly speculate, but several trends are probable. First, once the criteria are agreed for what happens to EU nationals living in the United Kingdom, a spike in immigration may occur as nationals, from Europe and beyond, seek to secure their status before policies change.

Second, as experience in Europe and elsewhere has shown, a major increase in irregular migration is likely once new rules are in place, given previously legal workers from Europe would require visas to work. This irregular migration will mostly come from visa overstayers in any future system.

Third, a significant shift is likely in terms of which immigrants come to the United Kingdom and how they enter. If we have correctly anticipated a points-based system in line with the current system, we can expect fewer younger workers and fewer with low qualifications (albeit some exceptions may be granted for certain economic sectors and public services). This would have a disproportionate impact on Eastern Europeans, who would come in lower numbers. Workers would likely shift into other migration channels (coming as family joiners or students for example) as employers and immigrants rethink their options.

Last, it seems important to give thought to whether the overall number of immigrant arrivals will drop precipitously, as many Leave voters anticipated and on which they based their vote. Future migration levels are impossible to predict in the absence of policy and economic certainty (most EU nationals are economic migrants and potentially significant UK economic decline could occur), but our estimate would be that the United Kingdom would continue to receive 500,000 or more immigrants (from EU and non-EU countries taken together) per year, with annual net migration around 200,000—twice the level of the controversial net migration pledge that the Cameron-led Coalition government and Conservative successor failed to meet and which created such public consternation.

These uncertainties and challenges suggest that the post-Cameron government is heading into the unknown with an astonishing lack of planning and the absence of an honest and realistic narrative. The space to achieve common ground is limited, but includes instituting controls on the migration of European nationals and ending free movement while calibrating a series of smart targets for key categories of migrants and simultaneously investing heavily in integration of existing migrants and communities affected by migration.

The new Prime Minister would be advised to underpromise and overdeliver on migration or risk further backlash.

Will Somerville is UK Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and Visiting Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.