May’s move to restrict new EU migrants after Brexit is long planned

Limiting role of EU migrants to that of temporary workforce is a policy that has been brewing.

Theresa May’s sudden demand that new EU migrants to Britain after March 2019 lose their right to settle in the UK has been greeted as a surprise spanner in the works of the Brexit negotiations.

But in fact, as the details of a Home Office draft Brexit immigration paper leaked to the Guardian in September show, it has been a long-planned policy designed to ensure that for all but the mostly highly skilled the role of European migrants in post-Brexit Britain is to be limited to that of a temporary workforce.

May’s references in China to the need during the two-year Brexit transition period for new EU migrants to get mandatory residence permits, possible restriction on access to benefits and services for those who don’t and the loss of any long-term right to settle in Britain shows that ambition is very much alive.

Downing Street tried to dismiss the Home Office leak at the time as a “very early draft”, implying that much had changed since September. But it spells out in very clear detail how a system of two-year temporary residence permits for all but the most highly skilled might work.

The leaked document makes clear how “freedom of movement” will initially be maintained, allowing any EU citizen to come to Britain to work or study on a temporary residence permit – five years for the highly skilled and two years for all other workers – but once they expire after full Brexit day in March 2021 the game will change.

As the Home Office put it, temporary residence permits would be required – as they are in many other EU countries – for those who wanted to stay beyond the first three months.

“They will be able to do so from within the UK [and we will look into registration from abroad if there is sufficient demand]. If eligible, we will issue them with permission to stay (temporary leave to remain), evidenced by a residence permit. Once that registration period has expired, EU citizens will need to apply for further leave under the rules in force at that time under the future system for EU nationals,” it says.

The Home Office argues that it can “build on the free movement directive” by requiring applicants to produce evidence of a job offer and pass a minimum earnings threshold to secure a residence permit. They concede, however, that banning jobseekers or the unemployed would not be consistent with the free movement directive.

As for the longer term, the Home Office plan includes offering professionals and the highly skilled who come during the transition period five-year permits with the right to settle longer with their families in Britain.

The options for all other European migrants, especially the lower skilled, suggest they would lose the right to settle, as May has now publicly suggested. “We will seek views on the settlement rights for other EU citizens but there will be no expectation of settlement for those arriving during the implementation period who are not in a designated settlement category such as highly skilled workers,” it states.

The other options canvassed by the Home Office include a stronger resident labour market test for vacancies to ensure priority for British workers, banning EU migrants who come to Britain without a job offer and want to look for work, and imposing a cap or a salary threshold on the numbers of lower-skilled workers.

Similar proposals were floated this week by the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, which went as far as suggesting that priority visas should only be given to low-skilled EU migrants willing to work at night or other antisocial hours.

It is no wonder that EU negotiators thought a deal had been done on citizens’ rights after the UK conceded that freedom of movement would continue until March 2021 as well as the jurisdiction of the European court of justice.

The prime minister may be relying on the claim that she is maintaining freedom of movement for all EU citizens during the two-year transition period but is not willing to guarantee any further rights beyond that. It may or may not work, but it shows that her “hard Brexit” immigration proposals detailed in that Home Office document are very much alive.