Leaked UK immigration proposals could wreck hopes of a Brexit deal

In Blog by Philippe Legrain0 Comments

It’s been a bad week for those of us who believe in open societies. Donald Trump cancelled an Obama-era programme that shields from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children. And leaked UK immigration proposals set out harsh terms for EU citizens after Brexit that threaten to scupper the already deadlocked Brexit negotiations.

It is morally wrong to threaten to deport young people who basically know only the US, have done nothing wrong and should not be held responsible for their parents’ actions.

It is also particularly economically harmful, since “Dreamers” are typically young and often highly educated as the Cato Institute points out. Indeed, many are veterans who – unlike Trump – have risked their lives to defend their country. Fortunately, Congress has six months to pass legislation to guarantee Dreamers’ rights; if you are American, contact your legislators now.

Trump’s move highlights how readily governments can take away people’s residency rights – an important reminder of why EU citizens need cast-iron guarantees that the UK government won’t curb their rights after Brexit.

That brings us to the leaked Home Office proposals for post-Brexit immigration rules for EU citizens that would curtail the rights of those already in the UK and severely restrict future EU migration.

It should come as no surprise that Theresa May’s immigration plans are stupid and nasty. She was obsessed with keeping out foreigners during her six years as Home Secretary (interior minister) and as prime minister she hasn’t broadened her outlook. She knows little and cares less about the economic contribution that migrants make to Britain and is blind to the political importance of free movement to the EU. And having spent years crafting the cruel, costly and devilishly complex system for non-EU migrants, she now wants to largely apply it to EU ones too.

The leaked proposals would curtail the rights of EU citizens in the UK in important ways. For instance, as Home Secretary, May introduced a wicked rule stipulating that only Britons who earn over £18,600 a year can get a visa for their non-EU spouse or partner to live with them in the UK. This violates both the fundamental right to family life – which, as a Christian conservative, May ought to cherish – and the basic principle of equality among citizens. Post-Brexit, she wants it to apply to EU migrants too.

The proposals would also severely restrict future EU migration. It suggests that only a limited number of low-skilled workers could come on two-year visas, with little possibility of settling. High-skilled workers would get visas for three to five years, with the eventual prospect of permanent residence and citizenship.

Their false premise is that most EU migrants are a threat to British workers or a burden on the state. In fact, migrants’ efforts tend to complement those of British workers; the employment rate for both UK-born workers and EU migrants is at record highs. EU migrants’ skills, hard work and willingness to do jobs that Britons spurn – in social care, for instance – benefit Britain, while their diverse perspectives and entrepreneurial dynamism help spark new ideas and businesses. And since they pay far more in taxes than they take out in benefits and public services, they subsidise the pensions and public services of British people (and help to provide them too). In other words, they make Britons better off.

Based on that false premise, the proposals presume that incompetent Home Office bureaucrats – who had to apologise over the summer for mistakenly sending deportation letters to 100 EU citizens – can better decide which EU migrants the UK needs and which not. Yet they lack the information and the incentives to second-guess the needs of the entire UK economy. Soviet-style manpower planning doesn’t work.

Worse, the proposals signal to the EU that May views her fellow Europeans as a threat and a burden. That is harmful in three ways.

It poisons the Brexit negotiations, making it harder to break the current deadlock and increasing the chances of a chaotic no-deal Brexit, whose calamitous consequences I spell out here.

Unless revised, the proposals would scupper hopes of a post-Brexit transition agreement – which in practical terms requires remaining within the single market and the customs union for a few years, as I explain here – leading to a cliff-edge shift to trading with the EU according to World Trade Organisation rules on Brexit day. While most of the proposed immigration changes would take place after an implementation period, measures such as limiting family members’ ability to move would kick in immediately.

Last but not least, they make a mockery of May’s stated desire to form a “deep and special partnership” with the EU longer term. If EU citizens are treated badly, the best that the UK can hope for is a shallow and limited free-trade agreement that would, for instance, do little to keep services trade open.

The government urgently needs to think again. If Theresa May won’t do so, that is a compelling reason for replacing her with someone more reasonable.