The Other European Migration Challenge

War in the Middle East has forced millions of people from their homes. Syria in particular has cities large and small devastated and practically abandoned. Refugees’ attempts to flee to Europe have led to division among potential host countries and tragedy on the seas.

There is another migration challenge in Europe, this one caused by Brexit. The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) means Britain will no longer be bound by EU agreements, including freedom of movement rules.

There are some three million people who have migrated to Britain from other EU countries, accounting for about five percent of Britain’s resident population. British government data reveals most of the 8,000 foreign-born nurses arriving in the last five years came from EU countries, especially Italy, Spain, and Portugal. More than 40,000 EU migrants work in Britain’s National Health Service. Many migrants came from Poland and Romania and other eastern European countries following the EU expansions in 2004 and 2007. Freedom of movement has worked both ways: there are 1.2 million Britons living in other EU countries.

More than 80% of British citizens believe EU migrants already living in Britain should be allowed to remain. Under current EU law, immigrants who have lived in Britain for at least five years qualify for a right to permanent residence. Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, wants a reciprocal agreement that British citizens living elsewhere in EU countries may remain in those countries if EU migrants are allowed to remain in Britain. That seems relatively straightforward until considering the question of when Britain would no longer be bound to observe the freedom of movement rules, and implement new immigration practices.

Based upon previous attempts to tighten immigration rules, immigration would be expected to spike prior to the new rules taking effect. That date could be the date of the exit vote or it could be two or more years into the future when Britain’s exit officially takes effect. Theoretically, any migrant who has met the five year residency requirement by that date could remain. A rush of new EU immigrants trying to establish residency before these decisions are made is likely.

Britain must also decide what its policy will be for future immigration. A think tank called British Future has conducted polls to learn public opinion on immigration. Nearly 90% of respondents would like to see the number of highly skilled immigrants increase or at least stay at past levels. Almost two-thirds want to reduce the number of low-skilled immigrants, even though low-skilled workers are vital to Britain’s hospitality, food-processing, and farming industries.

Britain has a point-based immigration system that scores prospective immigrants based upon skills, education, wealth, and specific attributes. The system is widely believed to be failing, according to the British Future report, which sees Brexit as an opportunity to rebuild public trust in Britain’s immigration system.

The value of immigrants is recognized by voters who were on both sides of the Brexit vote. The person who co-chaired the Leave side in the vote has called for immigrants who arrived in Britain before the vote be allowed to stay. Over 80% of the Leave voters want the number of skilled workers immigrating to Britain to increase or remain the same.

While there are majorities in agreement on some issues regarding immigration, reaching agreement on trade between Britain and the remaining EU members will likely be far more complex. And the trade negotiations will be linked to migration decisions because the EU is expected to only allow Britain to have tariff-free trade with the EU if EU citizens have the right to live and work in Britain.

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