What does leaving the EU mean for immigration?

Published: 28th Jun 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

Controlling EU immigration

The impact of leaving the EU on immigration will depend on the deal that is reached between the government and the EU.

If the UK government negotiates a deal to keep the UK in the single market then we may have to accept free movement as part of this. All the non-EU countries who are part of the single market, such as Norway and Iceland, accept free movement.

Once the UK leaves the EU, and if it doesn't negotiate a deal as part of the European Economic Area, then controls on EU immigration could be put in place.

Some experts have also noted that the EU prefers partner countries outside the EU to have a one size fits all approach to EU immigration. So whatever approach is adopted might have to apply to all EU countries rather than having different rules for each country.

Broadly speaking, if the same rules which currently apply to non-EU/EEA nationals coming to the UK are applied to those from the EU then they will only qualify for visas as visitors, workers, students or as a family member of someone already in the UK.

Any rules the UK enforced on immigrants would have to be offset against the needs of the economy. Current rules for non-EU immigrants restrict visas to higher-skilled immigrants. Most lower-skilled labour has been sourced from workers within the UK, the European Union and European Economic Area countries.

If EU/EEA immigrants fall under the same controls as non-EU/EEA citizens then there might be some pressure to relax some visa restrictions or to expand certain categories, depending on the needs of the economy. We’ve written more about the impact of immigration on the economy here.

The EU tends to require the same arrangements for its citizens as it gives to its third-country partners. This means that the extent of access or control that the UK wants to apply to EU/EEA nationals could affect British citizens’ opportunities to travel to or live in Europe.

The effect on non-EU immigration

EU law does not currently apply to non-EU immigration to the UK so this does not need to change once we exit the EU.

There is some practical co-operation between the UK and other member countries on the removal of irregular migrants, such as through the use of shared charter flights. The term ‘irregular migration’ can cover anything from those who have entered the UK illegally to those who have overstayed their visas or are breaking the terms of that visa.

The UK has also opted into some of the EU’s Readmission Agreements with third countries which set out those countries’ responsibilities to accept their nationals who have been removed from the EU.

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