The Home Office has hinted that EU free movement rules will end immediately if there is a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, sparking mass confusion and offering no concrete information.
This change could affect the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK from November onward.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May was considering two options to prolong the rules, which allow EU nationals to live and work freely in other countries in the bloc, under no deal.
One option was for the rules to be extended until January 2021, and another was to allow EU citizens to stay for three months before applying for a longer stay. A sort of transitional period.
However, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dropped these plans in favour of a new approach to be set out at a later stage.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Johnson said the UK would not “become hostile to immigration,” but it would be “democratically controlled” after Brexit.
The Home Office said EU citizens currently living in the UK would still have until December 2020 to apply for the right to remain under its settled status scheme.
So what does this mean, exactly?
In a no-deal scenario, those EU citizens with the right to permanent residence in the UK – which is granted after they have lived in the UK for five years – should see no change to their situation.
EU nationals who are already in the UK can apply for settled status or pre-settled status in the same way as now.
A spokesperson for the Home Office has said “EU citizens and their families still have until at least December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme,” which would grant them legal status in Britain after Brexit.
An end to freedom of movement would not affect those EU citizens coming for holidays and short trips, but would impact those who wish to work or study in the UK.
The changes to freedom of movement will not directly affect Irish citizens.
However, the news of a possible sharp end to free movement without the transition period envisaged under Theresa May’s administration provoked concern about how at least 2.6 million EU nationals who have yet to apply for settled status/pre-settled status would prove they are in the UK legally.
Time is of the essence:
Many believe the biggest challenge facing the Home Office is the significant lack of time they have to sort out this issue. Joe Owen, the program director on Brexit at the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank, has been quoted saying:
“You cannot change the migration system … and not have a plan for how you replace it within 10 weeks. It’s really not clear how on earth they plan to get this through.”
It is the ever present uncertainty of Brexit that is worrying many EU international’s living in the UK more than anything else. Some of them who have yet to apply are worried about their right to NHS treatment or employment being questioned. Some are also concerned about how they would prove they have the right to live in the UK if they travel abroad.
Around 1 million EU nationals living in the UK have already applied for settled status, but at least a further 2.6 million have yet to apply.
Under Britain’s current immigration system, EU nationals who live and work in the country don’t require any documentation apart from a valid passport. As a result, there is no formal government registry of those who have exercised their free-movement rights to live and work in Britain.
If freedom of movement were to end tomorrow, or in two months, there would be no way for the British government to distinguish between the EU nationals who are eligible to stay in the country and those who have newly arrived. The only ones they can account for are the one million EU nationals who have already applied for settled status through the government’s EU Settlement Scheme.
Naturally, there was some serious qualms about the absence of definitive information about what kind of documents people might need to take with them if they were to travel abroad, returning after 31 October. The Home Office have simply said that more information will be revealed in the coming weeks.
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