Tuesday, 27 June 2017

From free movers to settled immigrants

The publication of the Brexit government’s plans for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in rEU has already attracted much derision for its most obvious deficiencies. These include the uncertainty about the cut-off date, the issue of who will enforce rights and the question of whether whatever arrangement is finally agreed would survive the breakdown of the rest of the Brexit talks. Equally, although the proposals suggest a more streamlined process than the existing one for residency (including dropping the ludicrous demand for proof of health insurance that no one had ever been told they needed), the fee to be charged hasn’t been specified and it is highly unclear that the government has the administrative capacity to quickly process applications. And, whatever happens, none of this is going to lead to the reduction of red tape that Brexiters claimed as one of the benefits of leaving the EU!

It seems unlikely that these proposals will be agreed in their present form by the EU, but almost whatever arrangements do emerge there is a much more fundamental problem with them, and a much more fundamental loss which arises from them. The creation of a “settled status” category of persons is precisely to indicate the loss of the benefits and joys of freedom of movement. No doubt for some people who have, indeed, settled in the UK on a long-term basis and want to continue to do so, some version of these proposals will be more or less viable at a practical level. Even for them, any new system will be bothersome and intrusive and it can be expected that many more than those already leaving will feel disinclined to stay in a country which has so strongly signalled an antipathy to their presence. But, in any case, for many people freedom of movement was not about the chance to “settle” in another country but gave the opportunity to come in and out at different times for long or short periods.

This might be particularly the case for couples and families containing citizens from different member states. It will not necessarily be the case that they have settled in the UK for the five continuous years required. An Anglo-German couple, say, may have lived for shorter periods in one or other country (or in a third country). They may split their residency between countries at different times of the year. For that matter, they may have predicated their career and family plans on being in one country now but at some later stage being able to move for some period to the other country. Yet under the current proposals “settled status” will be lost after a two year absence, except for those who have undefined “strong ties” with the UK (paragraph 22 of the proposals).

What informs the UK approach is a naïve view of immigration – as being a kind of mechanistic one-time move from living in one country to another – and in particular a naïve conflation of free movement of people with immigration (which, indeed, is precisely how it has invariably figured in the Brexit debates). This was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers (p.10) in his February 2017 evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee:

They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a Government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement… [t]hey said, “But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing”.

This reflects the longstanding British failure to understand what a single market is and how it differs from a free trade area, which I have written about in another post. Because, indeed, within a single market it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. And free movement as opposed to immigration connotes something much more than the transactional economic cost-benefit analysis on both sides of the Brexit debate, for all that ending it will, indeed, entail massive economic problems for Britain. Rather, it connotes a much broader set of cultural and social possibilities.

It is this European meaning of free movement as a way of life which will be lost by Brexit, whatever deal ends up being struck about residency and rights, and those most immediately affected did not even have a vote on the decision. So people who have built their lives and plans in the perfectly legitimate expectation of an established political system guaranteeing their freedom of movement will lose it to become – if they qualify and if they wish it – not free movers but settled immigrants. Moreover, to the extent that the government intends these arrangements to be reciprocal for UK citizens in rEU those citizens, too, will have lost the free movement status they hitherto had and relied upon.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that although the direct impact will be greatest upon those who were exercising their freedom of movement rights at the cut off point, we have all lost out. Freedom of movement is, indeed, just that: a freedom. Every single UK citizen who may in the past and might in the future wish to move freely within the EU for short or long periods with minimal administrative and practical barriers is about to lose something rare, valuable and precious. All those opportunities to live, work, study and retire that we used all to be able to exercise if and when we chose have been sacrificed on the altar of the Brexit cult.

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