“We will take back control of our borders, by putting an end to the free movement of people once and for all. Instead of an immigration systems based on where a person comes from, we will build one based on the skills and talents a person has to offer”
That’s what the Prime Minister wrote in her “open letter to the nation” this Sunday in which she set out her vision for post-Brexit Britain.
It’s fair to say that unless we strike an incredibly generous deal with the EU on top of the one proposed by Mrs May, it’s likely that the UK will have more discretion over how many EU nationals enter the country after Brexit.
But Mrs May’s words imply that the UK currently operates an immigration system “based on where a person comes from” because of its EU membership. We think this needs unpacking.
It’s true that EU citizens have an automatic right to come and work in the UK, while citizens from other countries are subject to stricter requirements. But differentiating between immigrants based on where they come from isn’t the inevitable result of Britain’s EU membership.
The UK could – if it wanted to – decide to grant citizens of all nationalities the same terms of entry as it currently grants to EU citizens. This would create a level playing field, or at least one where the nationality of the applicant is irrelevant. Of course, it would be politically unpalatable for many – but not legally impossible.
Perhaps more interestingly, Mrs May fails to mention that the UK has had several chances to restrict freedom of movement from the EU, but chose not to take them: in 2004, when the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the trade bloc; then again in 2007 when Bulgaria and Romania were added; and finally in 2013, with the accession of Croatia.
The UK had the option to restrict the right of citizens from these countries to work in Britain for up to seven years – but was one of only three countries (alongside Sweden and Ireland) that chose not to.
And you might think from Mrs May’s words that all non-EU migrants are currently treated equally by the UK immigration system, regardless of nationality. But that’s not the case.
Non-EU visitors to the UK must get a visa, unless they come from one of 56 “exempt” countries (e.g. Canada, the US, Mexico, Brazil and Australia) whose nationals are allowed to stay in the country for up to six months before they need a visa.
If you’re not from an exempt country – like South Africa, India, China and Pakistan – there are other, more restrictive rules in place on who can travel and work here.
That means that – completely unrelated to our membership of the EU – the UK immigration system already discriminates between people based on where they’re from.
EU citizens have an automatic right to come and work in the UK, while citizens from other countries are subject to stricter requirements. So it’s true that we have a system based on where a person comes from, and some of that is the result of our membership of the EU.
But we think Mrs May’s language is misleading without further context.
The UK did have the chance to restrict freedom of movement from 11 EU member states on three separate occasions (including once under a Conservative government in 2013), but chose not to.
And completely unrelated to our membership of the EU, the UK immigration system already discriminates between people based on where they’re from. If you’re from Canada, Brazil or Australia for example, you can come to Britain for six months without a visa. But if you’re from South Africa, China or Pakistan, you can’t.
All of this should be taken with the further caveat that, despite Mrs May’s confident tone, there is no guarantee that her deal will be passed.