On 23 June 2016, the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union, the so-called Brexit. So what happens now, especially to the free movement of labour laws? As with many of the other forthcoming changes, it is uncertain what the immigration position will be post-Brexit as it will all depend on the details of the UK’s withdrawal agreement.
In the short term, there are no immediate legal consequences that follow directly from the referendum result. The law of the UK will only change when Parliament has enacted a new law via the full parliamentary process, and this is unlikely to happen for many months, possibly even years to come. The outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron, has stated that he will not immediately trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin the process to enable the UK to leave the EU within a two year period; this will be left to his successor who will be appointed by 2 September 2016. Boris Johnson, a potential successor, has indicated that there is no rush to trigger Article 50. Therefore there will be no immediate change to free movement laws, and EU citizens will continue to have the freedom to enter and work in the UK as before, as will UK citizens in the EU.
At the point when the UK leaves the EU, the UK will no longer be subject to EU laws including, one would expect, the free movement of people. However, the Article 50 negotiations are going to be complex and, with several interdependent issues, particularly on trade and immigration, it is possible some sort of free movement arrangements may continue and be incorporated into UK law.
• One possibility is that these new arrangements would automatically apply at a certain date to the three million EU citizens who are already resident in the UK, without anyone having to make an application as such.
• In a worst case, all three million EU citizens will become subject to, and would be required to make new applications under, UK immigration laws, so much of a bureaucratic upheaval (many of them do not have residence documents because under EU law residence documents are optional for EU nationals and their family members) that it seems certain that some provision will be made for those currently residing in the UK.
• It is also possible that the UK may accept free movement as a condition of participation in the European Economic Area, like Norway, or negotiate a stand-alone treaty with the EU as Switzerland has done.
In the meantime, many EU national residents, and their family members, will be extremely concerned about their position. Many may wish to apply for residence documents, for permanent residence and for naturalisation as British.
The impact of the new UK immigration system on EU citizens will depend on whether the UK chooses, or is allowed, to retain the current free movement of labour arrangements, or whether EU citizens become subject to new UK immigration laws as outlined above. It will be crucial to employers to see how this one particular aspect of Brexit develops.
Please contact us if you require advice on business immigration issues, such as how to become a sponsor or ensuring that your staff have the necessary visas.