‘Brexit’ or more easily understood as the British Exit from the European Union, has been a major international controversy for the past few years and will be one in some foreseeable years ahead.

Following the General Election in 2015, David Cameron, the re-elected Prime Minister, has given an unprecedentedly strong promise for a referendum to decide on United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017. According to the proposed European Union Referendum Bill, a nation-wide referendum is to be held throughout England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. By then, all eligible and registered voters of the UK will determine the future of the nation and perhaps Europe altogether.

Current UK Immigration Policy for EEA nationals and Statistics

The UK joined the EU back in 1973, and has remained a member since then. According to Directive 2004/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004, Article 6 and 7 has given nationals of EU member states (“EU nationals”) the right of residence in the territory of another member state subject to certain conditions if the citizen is to stay for more than three months.

Pursuant to the directive, the Parliament enacted Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 (“Regulations”) to outline the procedure and mechanism for EU and also EEA nationals to reside in the UK. According to s.14 (1) of the Regulations, a qualified person is entitled to reside in the United Kingdom for so long as he remains a qualified person. “Qualified person”, according to s.6 (1) of the Regulations, includes a jobseeker, a worker, a self-employed person, a self-sufficient person or a student. After five years of stay, such “qualified person” will be entitled to permanent residence in the UK according to s.15 (1).

Statistics show that this route of immigration has played a significant role over the increase in UK net immigration over the past few years. The Migration Statistics Quarterly Report published by Office for National Statistics in May 2015 reveals that the number of EU citizens immigrating to the UK has increased from 201,000 in 2013 to 268,000 in 2014, accounting for more than 40% of the total immigration estimate of 641,000 in 2014.

At the same time, statistics also tell us that the number of EU nationals in the UK has been similar to the number of Britons in other EU member states. The government, in her response to a question from a parliamentary member in February 2014, admitted that there are 2.2 million of Britons living in other EU member states up to 2010, similar to the number of 2.3 million EU citizens residing in the UK.

What we think

Even though the referendum has not come in place yet, various surveys have been conducted to see what the majority opinion is. Currently, neither side has gained more than half of the citizens’ support, with the number of people that support remaining slightly outnumbers that supports withdrawing. However, if any reform can be renegotiated with the European Union, more than half of the respondents would support remaining in the Union. If a referendum was held now, the result would very likely be remaining in EU.

A ‘Eurosceptic’ in the UK has always emphasized that leaving EU would bring us back the right to border and immigration control. With the provisions mentioned above, it is absolutely true that there was virtually no control or any barrier against EU citizens residing in the UK under the current regime. Withdrawing from EU will then remove all these EU nationals away from the UK, and they will have to apply through alternative routes. This may seem very attractive since nearly half of the current immigrants will have to go through the same process and procedure as non-EU nationals. It will be easier for the government to adopt a united policy towards immigrants, perhaps with more stringent rules.

Even so, the actual impact may not be as significant as imagined. Under the current rule, only qualified people are allowed to stay for longer than 3 months. Basically, this group of people is likely to have a stable income or strong family background to support their life in the UK. Once the UK withdraws from EU, this group of people can easily acquire leave to remain through current visas like Tier 2 (General) Worker, Tier 4 (General) Student or even Tier 1 (Entrepreneur), if they are rich enough. As long as they can find suitable sponsors, it is really not a big problem for them to stay for longer. For sure, this cannot make huge impact on the current labour market if the rationale for Brexit is to guarantee more job vacancies for British nationals. The burden to the social security system will not be very much lessened because, as mentioned earlier, this group of people can support themselves in general.

By then, all British nationals who are currently residing in other EU areas will have to apply for leave to remain as well. Similarly, as the eligibility of people who can stay for more than three months is stipulated in the EU directive, British nationals staying in other EU areas should be able to support themselves in general. They will also seek alternative routes to stay there, such as working and studying permits. It is therefore estimated that the number of British nationals who are returning to the UK, as well as the number of EEA nationals leaving the UK, will not reduce significantly, especially if they have settled in the current residence for more than a year.

Brexit from an Immigration Perspective

From an immigration perspective , one thing definitely not to be missed is the immediate effect on the government’s workload.

First, the number of visa applications will reach an unparalleled peak for the Home Office to decide upon. If most of those who are currently staying the UK for less than 5 years are seeking to remain, an additional 1 million applications will be on queue and this will be 5 to 6 times of the normal workload of the Home Office. These applications will come with an additional effort to verify the applicants’ status because most of these EU nationals may not have registered themselves with the Home Office had their stay been more than 3 months. The workload for each case would be potentially more complicated than those from outside the EU. Second, the Government will have to re-negotiate separately with all EEA members on immigration and visa terms, which can be a very lengthy process. At last, the pressure at border will soar as a result of treating all EU nationals the same as nationals from non-EU countries.

Even though all these problems involve mostly technical issues, it can take up to 5-6 years for the government to completely settle all these issues, which will be beyond the control of the Conservative Party. If Labour Party resumes its majority power in the House of Commons, the entire policy towards EU will very likely to change again. The political uncertainties behind will give the UK a relentlessly altering immigration policies in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

To sum up, while the Brexit may not bring a lot of benefits to the UK in terms of immigration policies, the immediate foreseeable problems brought by are immense. Withdrawing from the EU comes with costs outweighing the benefits from this particular perspective, it is therefore important to give due consideration on as many information as possible before making your choice in the referendum.