The impending referendum on the so-called Brexit has created an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the immigration status of many European citizens and their families based in the United Kingdom. While there has been much commentary on this issue, there has been no clear proposal presented by the Government of what will happen to either European citizens already based in the UK or for the future free movement of citizens. The prospect of an uncertain future is encouraging those who are eligible to apply for residency and dual citizenship.
The process of exiting the EU itself is an uncertain one. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty defines the process for exit, the terms of an exit of a member state will be negotiated by the remaining member states, and not the state leaving. Essentially, the UK will not be at the negotiation table for its own exit, further adding to the cloud of uncertainty surrounding a possible popular vote for a Brexit.
What could happen?
There are two main arguments posited regarding the immigration element of a possible British exit from the EU.
The pro-Brexit side is very much associated with tighter controls on EU immigration, arguing that, outside of the EU, Britain will have more autonomy to control its own borders and implement its own, presumably stricter, immigration policy. They argue that the size of the British economy and position of Britain in world affairs would provide a strong platform from which to negotiate new Free Trade Agreements without the accompanying free movement provisions.
Others however, cite the examples of both Norway and Switzerland (non-EU states), which, in exchange for access to the single market, have had to adopt the free movement of people. A recent Swiss referendum in favour of restricting the free movement of people has been rejected by the EU. Both Norway and Switzerland, despite being outside of the EU, have higher rates of EU immigration than the UK. In addition to this, there are estimated to be at least 1 million British citizens exercising their Treaty rights and living in other European countries – any agreement for the status of these citizens overseas, would surely involve a reciprocal agreement for EU citizens based here in the UK.
Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union in the future, there will be a chance that EU citizens who are currently in the UK will have to apply for UK visas or permits, under current UK immigration rules. EU citizens could be subject to a Points Based immigration system similar to that of Canada or Australia.
When will a possible Brexit take effect?
There would be a minimum period of two years following a popular vote to leave before that exit would become effective. During that time Britain would be obliged to continue to abide by EU treaties and laws, but would not take an active part in any decision-making. This bridging period would be to provide time for a withdrawal agreement to be negotiated and also for the UK to negotiate new stand-alone Free Trade Agreements.
The Government will no doubt endeavour to avoid any legislative vacuum caused by the repeal of EU laws before new UK laws are in place. However, what the replacement legislation will involve is unclear. In short, a Brexit will most definitely result in changes, but as to what those changes will be remains speculative for the moment.