6 December 2019

Earlier this week, Home Secretary Priti Patel said, “EU membership is incompatible with the vigorous border security I and the British people want to see.” Patel’s comments were accompanied by a pledge to introduce an Electronic Travel Authorisation system, requiring EU citizens to complete an online form before boarding a flight to the UK and present a passport on entry after Brexit – a proposal first announced in the December 2018 immigration White Paper. These measures were defended, in part, on the grounds that they would enable the Government to screen arrivals for crime threats, and much has been made of the fact that having a criminal record is not sufficient to deny an EU citizen entry to the UK under EU freedom of movement rights. UK citizens arriving in the EU are likely to face similar requirements if and when free movement ends.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott criticised the announcement, arguing that the Conservatives’ Brexit deal would weaken border security because the UK would “no longer have real-time access to a host of critical databases or access to the European Arrest Warrant”. It is worth noting here that no non-EU country has “access to the European Arrest Warrant”; losing this access is a consequence of Brexit itself, not the specific deal reached by the Conservatives. Nevertheless, although the revised Political Declaration commits the UK and the EU to negotiating a security partnership, it is still unclear what this will involve in practice and is barely mentioned in the election manifestos. Open Europe has previously published a briefing outlining the issues that both sides will have to address in the next phase of the negotiations with respect to the future security relationship.

Patel’s announcement seems to be in line with public opinion. Previous Open Europe research found that the criminality of immigrants was a major concern for the public, with 80% of Leavers and 73% of Remainers supporting increased criminal background checks on those entering the UK. If implemented, however, the new travel system would also serve the secondary purpose of demonstrating that Brexit had in fact happened, fending off any claims that nothing had changed. There is a risk, though, that rhetorically linking migration and criminality might lessen the UK’s appeal to the highly-skilled migrants the Conservatives say they are keen to attract. This could exacerbate the continued decline of long-term EU migration since 2016, which I examined last week.

More broadly, both main parties’ immigration policies leave many questions unanswered, as pointed out in Open Europe’s recent analysis of the party manifestos.

As well as their recent announcements on increased border security, the Conservatives also call for an “Australian-style” points based system, and pledge to reduce immigration overall – though without committing to a numerical target, as they did until 2018. They would end free movement and treat EU nationals arriving in the UK after the transition period the same as third country nationals. They would also seek an FTA-style agreement with the EU; as I write in a new blog post this week, a UK-EU trade agreement along the lines of existing comprehensive FTAs would leave the UK considerably more flexibility over immigration policy than EU membership. Yet little has been said on the question of what domestic policies might accompany the end of free movement, and many Conservative pledges, especially the “Australian-style points based system”, are lacking in detail.

Meanwhile, Labour has said it recognises “the social and economic benefits that free movement has brought… and we will seek to protect those rights,” whilst adding that free movement would be on the table in its proposed renegotiation with the EU. It is unclear whether the remark about protecting rights relates only to pre-Brexit EU migrants, whose rights are largely upheld in the existing Withdrawal Agreement, or would be extended to post-Brexit EU migrants also. It is also unclear whether Labour would sign up to ongoing free movement of people as part of their renegotiated deal – an ambiguity reflected in their call for “close alignment” with the Single Market, rather than full membership. In reality, a Labour Government would find that there are limits to how close Single Market alignment can be without free movement of people.

With the election less than a week away, it seems likely that these questions will remain unanswered, but a wider debate about the sort of immigration system the UK should strive for is in order.

Open Europe in the media

In a piece for ProspectDominic Walsh examines what might happen if the UK and EU miss the July 2020 deadline to extend the transition period. He writes, “The July 2020 deadline for extending the transition does not have to be the last chance. If both sides decide in November 2020 that they want more time, then a way can probably be found.” Separately, Walsh’s explainer on what a post-transition ‘No Deal’ between the UK and the EU might look like was picked up by Sam Coates, the Deputy Political Editor of Sky News.

In a new blog published this week, Open Europe’s Anthony Egan examines the migration provisions in a range of comprehensive trade deals and how they differ from EU membership. Egan argues that if the next Government strives for an FTA-style deal with the EU, domestic migration measures are likely to play a much larger role in the UK’s openness to immigration than international agreements. He also took a closer look at the recent ONS long-term immigration estimates for The Article, drawing out the major trends policymakers should be aware of.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Pieter Cleppe looks at what the EU is likely to demand in the next phase of the negotiations if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified after the election. Cleppe also wrote for BrexitCentral, analysing how the EU might react to a range of UK General Election outcomes.

Table of the Week: How do migration provisions in FTAs compare to EU Single Market rules?