Six months after the Brexit vote the UK government has singularly failed to say what BREXIT might mean. An inordinate amount of attention has been focused on trade deals, whether the UK might follow the Norwegian. Swiss or Canadian routes or negotiate its own á la carte approach (in their dreams). All the focus of newspapers and political circles has been on what it means for trade.
But something is missing. A large portion of leave voters voted so in order that the UK is once again able to control immigration (I will not play the card that some, and perhaps a considerable number, of leave voters might not have distinguished between migration within EU countries, which the UK is not currently able to control and migration from outside the EU, which it is).
But no-one in the government or even in the think tanks that are flourishing on the back of all this uncertainty have, to my knowledge, even started to talk about the nitty gritty: what types of EU migrants are/will be welcome in the UK and who will not be welcome. This is surely the key issue (well, at least, legally) on which any attempt at a Brexit negotiation is going to be built. The UK’s health and care services, education system, agriculture and food processing industries, trucking industry and a host of others are all very highly dependent on an ‘immigrant work force’. All of them are looking for special treatment. So far no-one has discussed what criteria will be established for deciding which migrants will be welcome and which not. (Apart from hitting out at students, but they are all always a soft touch aren’t they: the UK’s universities might not be such a soft touch) .
Equally no-one has even mentioned how restrictions on freedom of movement to and presumably from the UK will be enforced. Yes UK never signed up to Schengen so still has immigration checks at ports and airports. But will this imply that all EU visitors to the UK have to get a visa before coming to the UK or on arrival (and vice versa). Who is going to foot the bill for that? How many immigration officials will have to be employed – on the front-line and in the back-rooms.
To add to the uncertainty little or nothing has been said about the future status of EU nationals already resident in the UK (and again vice-versa). Some EU nationals have already applied for UKcitizenship and been turned for technical reasons (like needing to travel between the UK and the rest of the EU on a regular basis and thus being not able to surrender their passport to the Home Office for an indefinite period of time). They have been treated by illegal immigrants receiving advice from the Home Office to make preparations to leave the UK, something that must be deeply distressing to them as their status as lawful resident has not changed, and will not change, until the negotiations following the triggering of Article 50 have been concluded. This does not give me much confidence that the government or Home Office actually knows what it is doing.
So to summarise there are four unresolved questions around the core issue of ‘getting our borders back’.
- What will be the criteria on which the UK decides which EU immigrants are welcome to stay and work in the UK (or not)?
- How will it enforce them?
- How much will that will cost, both the government and the applicants?
- What of the status of those already resident in the UK?
These questions are not easily answered, but they should be things that are being talked about