Immigration and Brexit: Four challenges

Blog posts

1 Sep 2016

Madeleine Sumption

Madeleine Sumption, Director, Migration Observatory


The task of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union is set to dominate British policy-making for the foreseeable future, with impacts across the entire machinery of government.

Immigration was a defining issue in the referendum debate, and is widely regarded as the main reason the UK voted to leave the European Union on 23 June. If the current assumption among most political commentators is correct – that the option of remaining a member of the European Economic Area and therefore retaining free movement is no longer on the table – Brexit could bring the most profound change to the UK’s immigration system in a generation.

In principle it is not difficult to imagine a UK without free movement. But the process of getting from here to there raises important questions, ranging from administrative and economic to diplomatic and political.

The biggest administrative challenge is how to give some form of residence permit to EU citizens already living in the UK. The government has said that those already in the UK will retain their rights, although the details of how this will be implemented are not yet resolved, including how generous the terms will be and what kind of documentation they will need to produce. The sheer workload involved in processing more than 3.5 million people, some of whom will find it difficult to produce documents detailing their history of work and residence in the UK, is formidable. At current rates of processing for permanent residence applications this is equivalent to 140 years’ worth of work.

The second challenge is diplomacy and the negotiation of a future trading relationship with the EU. Migration has been integral to the UK-EU’s economic relationship so far, although if keeping free movement is not an option, migration could end up playing a limited role in this discussion. This is because while free movement is considered essential to single market membership, only very limited migration-related provisions have tended to be included in free trade deals with countries that are not seeking single market access (eg Canada). Nonetheless, the technical complexity of negotiating a new relationship which does not involve single market membership and free movement is enormous.

The third challenge is designing a new immigration system in the UK to replace free movement, and managing the web of social and economic trade-offs that all major changes to immigration policy require. By way of example, one of the key questions is how much—if any—of the substantial supply of low- and middle-skilled workers that the UK received under free movement will be ‘replaced’ once free movement comes to an end. Any future system for issuing work permits is likely to be much more open to migration into high-skilled jobs than into low-skilled ones, as is the case for the system that currently admits non-EU citizens to the UK. However, employers in some sectors have become quite reliant on low-wage EU workers. Various low-skilled worker programmes have existed in the past, and were closed on the basis that low-skilled labour needs could be satisfied by EU migration. Designing any replacement schemes will raise tricky questions, including how broad such programmes should be, who they should admit and for how long, and how to ensure good enforcement of working conditions and other programme rules.

The final challenge is political. It is not self-evident that simply ending free movement and replacing it with a work permit system will ‘fix’ public concerns about migration. Discussion of key political questions such as policies towards international students or how total levels of migration should be measured and targeted took a relatively low profile while the EU debate was in full swing. As the immigration system is redesigned, these questions will surely be back in the spotlight.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.