More than 2 months have elapsed since the UK’s Brexit vote, and there is still much uncertainty as to what this will mean for freedom of movement and the rights of EU and UK citizens after Britain does leave the EU. The mantra of the post-Brexit UK government has been ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but there has been no indication yet as to what the impact will exactly be on citizens.
Potential deals for the UK on EU migration range from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ options – from work permits to the status quo – while the UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has even suggested that the rights of EU citizens in the UK could be dependent on the rights of UK citizens in the EU, only adding to the uncertainty.
With 3.3 million EU citizens living in the UK and over a million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, their post-Brexit rights and any future controls on EU migration will be key issues in the UK’s negotiations with the EU.
Statistics from the “Your Europe Advice” service, which ECAS runs for the European Commission and through which more than 22,000 citizens across the EU receive legal advice on their free movement rights, indicate that this is a growing concern. Enquiries concerning residency in the UK, made between 1 June and 31 July, are up 51% compared to the same period last year. For entry into the UK, the increase is 25%. Overall, from May to July this year, the number of cases concerning the UK has risen 5 percentage points, from 15.5% of total cases to 20.6%, showing that Brexit is a cause of concern for EU and UK citizens.
The UK government appears to recognise this, and is trialling a fast-track system for an expected surge in permanent residency applications from EU nationals. Whilst this is an encouraging development, once the UK finally triggers Article 50 and negotiations begin, it is paramount that the residency rights of UK and EU citizens are protected and not used as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
As Article 50 is unlikely to be triggered until next year at the earliest, it is vital that decision-makers do as much as possible to depoliticise this issue and dispel any uncertainty ahead of the start of the negotiations. By clarifying the implications of Brexit for people’s rights under different scenarios, decision-makers can go a long way towards easing people’s anxieties.
The right to free movement is the most praised benefit of the European project by EU citizens, as confirmed by the last Spring Eurobarometer survey, which showed strong support for this right in both the UK and overall in the EU, with support at 63% and 79% respectively. It is in everyone’s interest, therefore, to preserve freedom of movement, insofar as this is possible, and minimise any restrictions that might be placed on this right.
The consequences of Brexit are as yet unknown, but politicians on all sides can work together to demystify these issues and put citizens’ rights on a firm footing.