Last week Theresa May published her “letter to the nation” to put forward the benefits, as she sees it, of her Brexit deal.
The first example she gives is: “We will take back control of our borders, by putting an end to the free movement of people once and for all. Instead of an immigration system based on where a person comes from, we will build one based on the skills and talents a person has to offer”.
Mrs May’s statement refers to the agreed commitments of the UK and EU as they negotiate a deal on their future relationship. This is meant to kick in at the start of 2021. Until this final deal is negotiated and agreed by all sides, they remain commitments and are not legally binding terms.
In the shorter term, free movement of people between the UK and EU is meant to continue after we leave the EU in March 2019 until the end of 2020 (provided parliament approves the UK and EU’s withdrawal agreement).
Free movement is meant to continue until the end of 2020
After we officially leave the EU in March 2019, UK and EU negotiators have agreed there will be a period of “transition” during which the UK will continue to have the same obligations as an EU member. The EU and the UK government have approved this agreement, but the UK parliament still has to vote on whether or not to accept it.
The transition period is designed to give the UK and EU more time to negotiate their future relationship, and will run until the end of 2020 (although it could be extended by a year or two).
During the transition period, the UK will still be part of the EU’s single market, meaning rules on free of movement of people will continue to apply between the UK and EU. That means citizens of other EU countries can freely move to the UK to live, work and access public services—and vice-versa.
The government is also introducing a “settled status” scheme, which will guarantee that EU nationals living in the UK before the end of 2020 are able to remain in the UK indefinitely, with broadly the same rights they had before (as long as they don’t leave for a period of five consecutive years). Close family members would also be able to join them. We’ve explained this scheme in more detail here.
UK citizens living in the rest of the EU before the end of 2020 would have the right to remain there indefinitely provided they aren’t absent from the EU for a continued period of five years after 2020.
All of this is largely dependent on the UK and EU’s withdrawal agreement being approved by the UK parliament. If no withdrawal agreement is passed, then what would happen after we leave the EU in March 2019 is less clear.
Free movement is set to end after 2020
What happens after 2020 will be set out in any deal the UK and EU agree on their future relationship. That means we won’t know the final terms for a while yet, but the UK and EU have published a “political declaration” which sets out their shared negotiating commitments. While these are the clearly stated positions of the UK and EU at present, we can’t guarantee that circumstances won’t change between now and 2020.
The declaration accepts the UK’s intention that free movement of people between the UK and EU will end after 2020 (when the transition period ends).
The declaration states that both parties “should establish” arrangements so that EU citizens get “visa-free travel for short-term visits” to the UK (and vice-versa). It also says the UK and EU will consider whether there will be special arrangements for people moving between the UK and EU for research, study, training and youth exchanges. There are also meant to be special arrangements allowing people to stay temporarily for business purposes.
Citizens of all EU member states would have to be treated the same way by the UK (and vice-versa), except Ireland—where the Common Travel Area (which allows free movement of people between the UK and Ireland) would continue to apply.
Theresa May has said there will be no preferential treatment for EU citizens after 2020
The Prime Minister has also stated her intention that under the UK’s future immigration policy EU citizens will not get preferential access to come and work in the UK over other immigrants after 2020. She summarised it as: “It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi.”
Mrs May has since apologised for using the term “jump the queue”, but said it remains her intention to have an immigration system “based around the talents and skills a person has to offer” with no preferential access for EU nationals.
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