The U.K.'s Mixed Messages on Migration After Brexit

The issue is a key consideration in talks with the EU.

Eddie Keogh / Reuters

British ministers added more confusion Thursday about the fate of EU citizens in the U.K. the day after Brexit.

It began with an op-ed in the Financial Times by Amber Rudd, the U.K. home secretary, who wrote the country’s goal was to “control migration from the EU while still attracting the best and brightest.” British businesses have urged the government to reconsider its position on tightening immigration rules to the U.K., noting “workers from across Europe strengthen our businesses.” Rudd’s article appeared to take those concerns into account. She wrote that while the U.K. would work on an immigration system “that works in the best interests of the country,” she wanted to assure British businesses that “the government is listening.”

Business interests notwithstanding, immigration has long been an issue of concern in the U.K., and was one of the main reasons Britons voted in June 2016 to leave the EU. Multiple governments have promised to reduce net migration to the country below 100,000. According to the most recent figures, net migration stood at 248,000.

But Rudd, in her FT article, reiterated comments made last November by Prime Minister Theresa May who promised businesses there would be clarity on rules about workers when the two-year negotiating period on Brexit comes to an end, so U.K. businesses could avoid what’s being described as a “cliff edge.”

“I also want to reassure businesses and EU nationals that we will ensure there is no ‘cliff edge’ once we leave the bloc,” Rudd wrote.

She said the U.K. government was commissioning a study that would provide a “detailed assessment” of the costs and benefits to the U.K. of EU migrants. The report is likely to be completed by September 2018, the government said, six months before the scheduled Brexit date of March 2019. The EU has said it hopes to have talks concluded by October 2018. Among other things, the government said, the study will examine the costs and benefits of migration from the EU to the U.K.; the benefits of high-skilled migration; how reduced immigration from the EU could affect the U.K. economy; and whether the availability of cheap labor from Eastern Europe has resulted in U.K. companies not investing in certain sectors. But critics of the government’s handling of the talks with the EU say such a study should have been commissioned far sooner, given that the Brexit vote occurred more than a year ago, and British businesses have shared their concerns with the government since then.

If Rudd’s op-ed was supposed to assure businesses, remarks by Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis likely did not. Speaking on the BBC, Lewis said the free movement of people would end upon Brexit and a new immigration system would be in place—though neither he nor other officials have said what that system would look like.

“Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019,” Lewis said. “I’ll be very clear about that.”

Those remarks run counter to the government’s reported position that it would permit free movement to continue for a few years after Brexit to avoid uncertainty for British businesses.

The mixed messages from the U.K. government on the issue can be attributed, in part, to the fact that though they are committed to negotiating an exit from the EU, May’s Cabinet may not be on the same page on the issue. Lewis, for example, campaigned for the U.K. to remain in the EU, as had Rudd, and May, though more tepidly. One of those who campaigned most vocally for the U.K. to leave the EU was Boris Johnson, who is now the foreign secretary, and who on Thursday, while on a trip to Australia, said he believed in an “open approach” to immigration.

The extent of free movement of labor—a fundamental pillar of EU membership—  the U.K. permits after Brexit will possibly determine how much access it has to the European single market after it leaves the EU in March 2019. U.K. leaders are clear they are leaving the single market, but many U.K. companies are loath to relinquish not only access to one of the world’s largest markets, but also the talent pool of European workers. Thursday’s remarks from their government are only likely to add to their uncertainty.