EU workers should hold no special status in UK immigration law once the Brexit process is complete, the Cabinet agreed this week.
The ‘agreement in principle’ followed on the heels of a recent report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose many recommendations included treating EU workers the same as migrants from any other part of the world in the future.
In essence, this means that EU workers would be subject to the same limitations and restrictions that highly skilled workers from outside the EU already face when seeking to move to the UK.
The MAC proposal was linked to a call to end the annual cap on the number of highly skilled workers allowed into the UK, as well as the assertion that there was generally no need to allow “low skilled” workers into the country.
The suggestion that people receive equal treatment regardless of their nationality sounds positive in theory but the Cabinet’s endorsement of this suggestion concerns me, as an immigration lawyer and an individual, for several reasons.
Firstly, I am aware that the bar for skilled workers seeking to enter the UK is already extremely high. Generally, skilled workers outside the UK have the extremely difficult task of finding a sponsor, who must then be able to show there was no one in the UK capable of doing their job. On top of this, larger companies have to pay an additional £1,000 a year for the privilege of employing someone from outside the country. That is a big ask.
Secondly, there is the matter of the cap. It remains to be seen whether the UK government would have the nerve to scrap the limit on the numbers of skilled workers allowed in, given its general support of a “hostile climate” to immigration. If the cap remains in place, there would be even fiercer competition for posts between greater numbers of people.
Thirdly, most skilled workers need to be earning a certain level of salary to qualify. This is currently £30,000 at the first stage, rising to over £35,000 once they have lived here for five years. This excludes a vast swathe of people very important to the UK, whom I consider highly skilled, regardless of their income, such as teachers, whose starting salary is well below this level.
Fourthly, I have concerns about the suggestion that there is no need for “low skilled” workers – but see the comments of my colleague Charles Green, who has already discussed this.
Lastly, and on a personal note, I fear that if we impose such severe restrictions on EU citizens, then we will find ourselves on the receiving end of the same treatment from other EU states. As someone who lived and worked in Italy for nearly a decade, I think this would be a real loss. Regardless of what people may feel about EU membership, Europe remains our closest neighbour and will, I hope, always be the first port of call for our young people looking to spread their wings. My time living in another part of the EU changed my worldview for the better and, I feel, made me much more open to other ways of being and living.
I am not certain what a Cabinet ‘agreement in principle’ means exactly but fortunately I am fairly certain that this has little real weight beyond a statement of intent, and no binding status in law. Furthermore, as someone who has not yet accepted a no-deal Brexit is inevitable, I struggle to see how other EU states would happily go along with this as part of any final accord.
So in the final analysis, while I am unhappy with this latest development in the Brexit saga, I remain hopeful that this particular ‘agreement’ will remain ‘in principle’ only.
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