Theresa May signals an end to free movement and leaves EU citizens here and British citizens abroad in limbo

18 January 2017

Theresa May’s eagerly anticipated speech on the UK’s starting point for negotiations on Brexit, has sketched a very broad outline of her intentions with respect to immigration from the EU moving forward. However when you get up close there is little new detail and her comments have, arguably, raised more questions than they have answered.

In her speech on 17th January, Theresa May gave her clearest indication yet that free movement of persons will not feature in any post-Brexit deal. She has made it clear that she is willing to sacrifice the UK’s access to the Single Market in order to have greater control of immigration. Her emphasis on controlling immigration was tempered with  platitudes regarding the UK continuing to attract the brightest and best and an ‘openness’ to international talent. It should be noted though that this attitude is in stark contrast to the direction we have seen UK immigration take under Theresa May as Home Secretary and Prime Minister with respect to non-EU migrants. The Prime Minister did not indicate or elaborate on how a system incorporating EU citizens would be any less restrictive.

She spoke, for example, of her intention that the UK be ‘one of the best places in the world’ for science and innovation, despite it becoming ever harder for scientists and innovators to come to the UK. Her on-going push to limit numbers has also seen the UK become a less desirable destination for top students. When asked by reporters after her speech whether any business sectors would be exempted from the immigration rules, the Prime Minister was unwilling to commit, choosing instead to reemphasise her interpretation of June’s referendum as a vote to take control of immigration.

An end to free movement will, undoubtedly be of concern to a great many businesses in the UK who rely on free movement for everything from farm labourers through to neurosurgeons (and let us remember that EU citizens make up 10% of NHS registered doctors). 

An Open Britain poll of leave voters earlier this month showed that more than half (54%) of Leave voters are not prepared to make any personal financial sacrifices for the UK to regain control of immigration. It will be more important than ever to continue to draw attention to fact based analysis of immigration that show the clear economic benefits this brings to the UK.

The Prime Minister also failed in today’s speech to allay the fears of the three million Europeans who have made the UK their home. She spoke today of creating a ‘fairer, more united and more outward-looking’ United Kingdom. She has talked about respect for the rights of Europeans resident here and the importance of guaranteeing their right to remain. Yet sadly she offered nothing new.

It seems the fate of those in question still relies on the outcome of negotiations with other EU states regarding British citizens in those nations. While it is clearly important to protect the position of British Citizens across the EU, it is the UK who is seeking to leave. We have taken the decision to withdraw from the EU and, as the instigator of this change, it is clearly of the utmost importance that we take the lead in mitigating against the damage being done to the human beings caught in the cross hairs of our decision.

This position is also entirely consistent with the calls of leading Brexiteers both before and since the referendum, with key leader of the vote leave movement, Boris Johnson, confirming in the days after the vote that ‘EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected’. In the seven months which have followed, there has been no indication as to how such rights will be protected and no plan is forthcoming.

Mrs May used her speech to berate those who want greater clarity and are as she said ‘frustrated’. It is not mere frustration driving three million Europeans to seek security in their residency. Their future is at stake.

The process of documenting European citizens who have a right of residence in the UK will be a slow one. We would welcome clearer guidance for European Citizens on their rights and how to evidence these, as well as steps to simplify and speed up the process. Our advice to Europeans in the UK is to confirm your position now, ensure you understand your rights, and obtain clear evidence of these rights, including from the Home Office where possible. 

However, we remain concerned that the sheer volume of individuals who may need proof of their status makes the two year negotiation period too short. We therefore would welcome proper and effective transitional provisions in place as a matter of priority. It is essential these reflect the practicalities of requiring three million people to get documented and the harsh reality of limited Home Office resources.  

Meanwhile EU citizens here remain in limbo and will be hugely disappointed that they did not receive the certainty they sought from today’s speech.

Further information

If you are affected or have any questions about the issues raised in this blog, please contact Katie Newbury or a member of our immigration team.

You may be interested in reading our fact sheet below with practical steps EU citizens in the UK can take now.  

See also our other blogs for further updates and opinion on immigration  and Brexit related issues. 

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The vote in favour of the UK leaving the European Union has created uncertainty and given rise to a lot of unanswered questions.

European Citizens and Their Families

As experts in EU free movement law we help European citizens secure their right to stay in the UK, including under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Citizenship through British Mothers and Fathers

We advise on the eligibility to make an application to be registered as a British citizen through a British mother or father.

Registering Children as British Citizens

Naturalising as a British citizen is only available to individuals aged 18 or over. If you have a child for whom you would like to obtain British citizenship, we can assist you in making an application to register them as a British citizen.

Naturalising as a British Citizen

Individuals who have been living in the UK for several years often choose to apply for British citizenship. We can assist you to prepare the application, liaise with the Home Office and facilitate the process.

Obtaining British Citizenship and Staying Permanently

Whether you are looking to naturalise, or register as a British citizen, we can provide you with detailed advice and guidance.

Immigration advice for Entrepreneurs and UK Startups

Immigration advice for entrepreneurs looking to invest in, set up a subsidiary, relocate a business, or start a business in the UK.

Moving to the UK

Making your home in another country can be complicated. We’ll help simplify the process.


Our specialist team has been advising businesses and individuals on all aspects of UK immigration and nationality law for over 20 years.

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