How Brexit may affect EU migrants

The United Kingdom decided to end its European Union membership at the referendum of 23 June. Actual exit will not commence until the British government invokes Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. British Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated this will not be rushed and will not happen this year. Our contributing editor and London-based legal scholar Sylvester Mutuku (LL.M) examines how the different prospective models of post-Brexit British-EU relationship will affect immigrants.

We can expect the process of Brexit to take about two years from the time the EU is formally informed of the British decision to leave under Article 50. The future for both the EU and a post-Brexit Britain is uncertain in terms of the economy among many other issues.

Most certainly uncertain is the future status of current EU migrants in the UK and vice-versa. Indeed when British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked to guarantee the status of EU immigrants in the UK, she declined saying that it was a matter that will be subject to negotiations with the EU.

How African migrants voted
The UK is home to thousands of African immigrants exercising freedom of movement rights from other EU members (notably Germany, Italy, France and Portugal) on top of the hundreds of thousands more, who came directly from Africa to the UK.

The two immigrant groups voted differently, with most of the freedom of movement Africans voting to remain while most of the direct immigrants voted to leave. The latter voted in protest over perceived loss of jobs to the EU migrants particularly from the Eastern European countries such as Poland.

Brits lost faith in the EU largely due to perceptions that freedom of movement of persons has resulted in “too many” EU migrants coming in, taking over jobs, driving down wages, taking welfare benefits, and putting pressure on social amenities (such as housing and schools), and on the free National Health Service. This happened despite the statistics showing that there are more Brits in work than ever and that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out.

The immediate effects of Brexit were swift. Prime Minister David Cameron quit, the pound sterling fell to 31 year lows and Britain’s credit rating downgraded. Other effects will become clearer with time once negotiations commence and Britain’s future outside of the EU becomes clearer. Indeed a lot will depend on what kind of deal Britain gets from the EU. Therefore how Brexit affects immigrants will also depend on the model adopted.

The Norway Model
Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA single market) along with the 28 current EU members, Liechtenstein and Iceland. It pays a contribution to the EU budget and has to sign up to all the rules of the club (exempt from EU rules on agriculture, fisheries, justice and home affairs). Norway however has no say over how the rules of the single market are created.

If post-Brexit UK followed this model, nothing much will change as free movement would be retained. This is however unlikely as the model retains the aspects of the EU that the UK indirectly voted against (immigration, EU contribution fees, sovereignty).

The Swiss Model
Switzerland has a free trade agreement with the EU plus other agreements giving it access to the single market for most of its industries but not others. Its agreement also includes the free movement of people. Switzerland contributes billions of dollars to EU projects for that access. Switzerland voted in a referendum against free movement on 9 February 2014 which was met with hostility in Brussels. There can be no access without the free movement making it an unsuitable model for the UK.

The Turkey Model
Turkey is neither part of the EEA nor the European Free Trade Association but has a customs union with the EU. This means it pays no tariffs (taxes or duties on imports and exports) or quotas on industrial goods exported to EU countries. Turkey’s customs union does not apply to agricultural goods, or to services. Turkey however has to impose EU tariffs on goods it imports from non-EU countries without input.

This is a less than ideal model for Britain especially because trade in services would not be included and that happens to be the UK’s largest sector. There would be no free movement under such a model and EU migrants would likely have to shift their status to national law or leave. Those under national law would not be able to migrate freely to EU countries.

The Singapore and Hong Kong Model
The two have a unilateral free trade policy – dropping all tariffs and relying on the World Trade Organization’s framework. This would mean the EU would in return have to drop tariffs. It is an easy and attractive model except that some sectors (such as agriculture) would need protection otherwise cheap EU imports would damage them. There would be no free movement of persons under such a model thus affording current EU immigrants little continuity.

The Canada Model
Canada has negotiated the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the EU. It gives Canada preferential access to the EU single market without all the obligations that Norway and Switzerland have, eliminating most trade tariffs except for a few “sensitive” food items. The services sector is only partially covered by CETA which disadvantages UK’s financial services. The UK might like to push for a similar special agreement with more generous terms owing to its close historical, economic and geopolitical links to the EU. This would take long and without any guarantees.

The above models provide different templates the UK might use as beacons to negotiate the deal closest to the ideal that likely includes access to the single market without the free movement of persons or financial contribution bit. In the absence of any deal the UK would have to deal with the EU under WTO rules like the rest of the world does, which would allow high tariffs and duties. It remains to be seen which way the wind blows and negotiations might take very long depending on the model chosen.

To be safe, EU migrants would be best advised to shift their immigration status to national law, which is either indefinite leave to remain or naturalize to become citizens. Meanwhile, hundreds of British nationals living in Germany have been reported to have applied for the German citizenship.

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