Leaving the EU might not mean less EU migration

31 March 2016

On both sides of the EU referendum debate it's widely assumed that leaving the EU will lead to less migration to the UK from other parts of the EU. That's one of the main reasons why many people want the UK to leave the EU in the first place. "It's time we took back control of our borders" and so on. But this assumption could be wrong. In fact, leaving the EU could even lead to more EU migration to the UK than if we vote to stay in.

Here's why.

David Cameron has negotiated a deal with the EU which will lead to more restrictions on the rights of EU nationals who want to move to other EU countries, including the UK. The restrictions cover three areas.

First, the UK will be able to request a limit on in-work benefits for EU workers for up to four years after they start working in the UK - the "emergency brake". Second, payments of child benefit to EU workers who have children in other member states will be limited. These are the two areas which have received the most attention in the media.

The third part of the deal on migration is about non-EU family members of EU nationals. At the moment, it's much easier for EU nationals living in the UK to bring non-EU family members to the UK than it is for British citizens to do the same thing. For instance, British citizens need to have an income of at least £18,600 per year if they want to bring a spouse or partner to the UK from outside the EU, and the Home Office takes a keen interest in whether the relationship is genuine. For EU nationals who wish to do this, there is no minimum income requirement and the Home Office can only question the genuineness of the relationship if it has reasonable grounds for suspicion. And it is almost impossible for British citizens to bring elderly parents or other adult dependent relatives from outside the EU to the UK, whereas EU nationals can bring a range of family members to the UK without difficulty. The European Commission has agreed to propose new laws to remove these anomalies. In future, if EU nationals want to bring in non-EU family members to the UK they will have to apply under domestic British law instead of the more generous European law, unless their family members have already been living with them in another EU member state.

This doesn't sound like much? Try telling that to the thousands of British citizens who haven't been able to bring in their non-EU partners to the UK over the past few years because they don't earn enough, or because the Home Office isn't convinced that their relationship is genuine.

It's clear that staying in the EU under Cameron's settlement will lead to significant restrictions on EU migration. They may not reduce the numbers by much but they will certainly be felt by the people concerned.

This settlement will be off the table if the UK votes to leave to the EU. Long negotiations will follow. Once we have left, Eurosceptics say, parliament will be free to pass whatever laws it wants on immigration and anything else. That's true, but only if we don't want anything to do with the EU. If we want access to the single market we're going to have to negotiate, and the price of that might be...free movement for EU nationals. Not Cameron's new settlement, but the current version with no emergency brake, no restrictions on child benefit, and better rights for EU nationals than British citizens who want to bring their non-EU family members to the UK.

People who want the UK stay in the EU point out that Norway, Iceland and Switzerland - which are outside the EU - have had to agree to free movement for EU nationals in order to access the single market. Eurosceptics say that the UK has so much more economic clout than these small countries that we won't be held to the same rules. Is that right? The truth is that nobody really knows.

Further information

Should you have any questions about the issues raised in this blog post please contact Kim Vowden or a member of our immigration team.

To listen our Immigration webinar: EU referendum – Implications for free movement, please click HERE

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