Priti Patel has stolen at least two days of headlines – far from all of them positive – with the announcement that she intends to end freedom of movement at the very moment of Brexit in the event of No Deal. What is not clear, however, is what exactly this means.
In theory, it means (or at least sounds to casual ears like it means) bringing EU nationals under the UK’s existing visa arrangements for people from the rest of the world. But even the positive write-ups can’t avoid alluding to the fact that such a policy seems impossible to reconcile with the Government’s commitment to giving EU nationals currently resident in Britain up until the end of 2020 to register for so-called ‘settled status’.
Were the Home Office to simultaneously honour this pledge and bring freedom of movement to an immediate end, there would be a period of more than a year when EU nationals eligible for settled status would be theoretically free to move in and out of the UK at will, but EU nationals ineligible for it would not – with no means of distinguishing between the two.
This is why Sajid Javid, Patel’s predecessor, went on the record as saying that an immediate end to freedom of movement was impractical, and called for “some kind of sensible transition period”.
Nowhere in the papers is an answer to this conundrum offered. Instead, there are reports that Home Office officials have been sent to Singapore to see how their ‘tough’ immigration computer system operates. But it isn’t obvious how ‘counting people in and out of the country’, the task the city state has apparently solved, addresses the core problem with an immediate end to freedom of movement outlined above.
It is also worth noting that, rigorous as it might be, Singapore’s system is geared towards admitting an exceptionally high number of foreign ‘workers’ and ‘talents’ – a policy in keeping with Boris Johnson’s decision to tear up Theresa May’s net migration target, but scarcely something voters might characterise as ‘tough’.
What detail we have suggests that Patel is employing smoke and mirrors: the Guardian reports a ‘senior Home Office source’ as claiming that “the only change that had so far been confirmed by the Home Office was additional criminal record checks on those entering the UK, while other potential changes were still being assessed.” The Daily Express also reports that Patel intends to introduce tough new criminality rules and at least implies that this will not affect those EU nationals eligible for settled status – although again, the question arises of how the new system will recognise these as such.
One can therefore see the germ of a strategy here: tough talk, and a high-profile crackdown on obvious abuses, providing cover for a general shift to a more liberal (but perhaps better-regulated and more rigorously policed) system. Alternatively, this is simply intended to sit alongside more police officers and a boost to NHS spending in a whirlwind of retail offers the Prime Minister means to bank sooner rather than later, and help him buy the political breathing room for a more considered alternative.
The danger is that by talking grandly of ‘ending free movement’ the Government ends up raising expectations it cannot meet – or sowing chaos and uncertainty in the attempt to meet them.