Does Brexit really mean 'taking back control' of immigration?

The UK will have to demonstrate that it is still ‘open for business’ after it leaves the EU at the end of March 2019, according to Greens MEP Jean Lambert.

UK border force passport check | Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

15 May 2018

She was speaking on Monday at a debate on immigration to the UK after it exits the EU.

The event was told that the debate in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum was dominated by immigration, with one of the iconic images of the referendum being Ukip’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which blamed the arrival of immigrants on the UK’s membership of the EU. 

Almost two years since the referendum and in the midst of negotiations, the European Policy Centre (EPC) conference examined the claim that leaving the EU represents ‘taking back control’ of immigration.


Speakers discussed the UK’s ability to attract skilled and unskilled labour once it leaves the EU, its capacity to live up to its responsibility to provide international protection to those in need and what its new border control strategy will look like. 

Lambert, one of the keynote speakers, said, “The UK is already very much in control as regards immigration from outside the EU as the recent arguments about the UK government choosing not to grant additional visas to doctors recruited to work in our understaffed NHS show. 

“The UK has opted in to a few of the EU measures that assist control and the return of migrants to another country such as identification of applicants (EURODAC) and the EU’s readmission agreements - so it might want to replicate those at bilateral level.”

She asked, “What will it offer in exchange?”

Lambert added, “Future trade agreements will cause headaches for a government intent on keeping migrant numbers down: we already know that countries such as India will want movement on visas and access for their companies’ workers to deliver services in return for opening up their finance sector for the UK, for example. 

“Can the UK show it's ‘open for business’, while closing the door to workers from other countries?”

Lambert said that many countries want to attract students and highly qualified staff but the UK’s current “hostile environment is sending totally the wrong message.”

She told the meeting, “In just the last few weeks, we have seen the Home Office deport citizens (the ‘Windrush generation’); force the return home of highly qualified people who have committed, and corrected, very minor tax errors and expelled thousands of overseas students ‘in error’. Such unjust treatment is not going to attract new talent or keep that which you have already.”

She predicted that the UK Home Office will be faced with a “massive” administrative task to register over three million EU nationals in the near future. 

“We have yet to see a really coherent approach to UK nationals living in other member states: the UK Foreign Office is supposed to be leading on this but seems to be totally silent.”

Lambert says the European Parliament will be “watching closely” to see what is happening to citizens, adding, “We want the vulnerable to be protected, not forgotten.”

She said, “Our vote on the Withdrawal Agreement should not be taken for granted.”

Moderator Frank McNamara, from the EPC, said that reflection was needed on the nature of the relationship that will emerge from negotiations between the EU and the UK with regard to migration control and border management.

Another speaker, UK-based immigration barrister Colin Yeo, said the EU was “synonymous” with migration for many Leave voters.

Yeo said, “The refugee crisis in the EU was a major issue and was ruthlessly exploited by Leave campaigners, even though the numbers of arrivals of refugees in the UK was miniscule compared to other EU countries, with around 25,000-30,000 per year.

“When pressed on this, Leave campaigners resorted to arguing that the refugees would eventually become EU citizens and then there was nothing to stop them coming over here and stealing our jobs, benefits, women or whatever. Obviously, the assumption that the UK is some sort of El Dorado is somewhat questionable.”

Yeo said that since the result, there has been a “resounding silence on refugee issues but free movement has been a major issue.”

He said that Eurobarometer surveys and other opinion polling shows that attitudes to immigration and to EU migrants are “improving rapidly” in the UK.

“There has always been considerable sympathy for individual migrants and even specific groups of migrants. The reason for the chasm is perceived lack of control over good and bad immigration. 

“Where people feel there is control and therefore admission of the ‘good migrants’ to whom they feel sympathy, they are more likely to be sympathetic to migration as a concept.”

Yeo, a specialist on immigration law, told the debate, “Actual control and perceived control are two different things but they are linked. It would be a mistake in my view to see this as indicating potential for a reversal of Brexit.

“Attitudes are changing precisely because of Brexit - people feel the control already and it makes them more relaxed about migration.”

He asked if Brexit provides the UK with a greater ability to control the immigration of third country nationals to the UK.

He also bemoaned the perceived lack of discussion on the “loss of control that Brexit will bring about,” adding, “The UK must necessarily be leaving the common European asylum system as far as I can see, and therefore also leaving the Dublin system and the information sharing Eurodac system. 

“The EU does not stand still and both those elements are being further developed, and the UK would no doubt be opting into revised versions if it had the chance.”

Yeo said, “The fact is that these elements of loss of control are fairly minor. Removals to other EU countries under Dublin have declined dramatically in recent years and I suspect that some sort of information sharing arrangement with the EU will be reached.”

Yeo asked, “What will the future relationship between the UK and the EU look like with regard to immigration control of third country nationals?

One option was free movement “or something very like it”, while another possibility would be the current controls for third country nationals.

A further option would be “special new rules for EU, EEA and Swiss nationals.”

Yeo said, “This seems most likely but the longer that the end of transition is delayed the more likely it is that free movement will continue.”


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