‘Taking back control of our borders’ was one of the main slogans of the Vote Leave campaign, which told its supporters that immigration would go down.
That has not happened – immigration from the EU has gone down but overall immigration has not. Indeed, while more EU citizens left the UK than arrived in the year to June 2022, overall net inward migration to the UK, at 504 000, was the highest on record. Despite that, there are still labour shortages in key areas – including the NHS - where EU workers had previously filled gaps.
Neither has Brexit led to a reduction in irregular migration, notably across the Channel in small boats. Indeed, by removing the UK from the EU’s ‘Dublin Regulation’, it has made it more difficult to return asylum seekers to EU countries where they first arrived, for their claims to be processed there. According to Home Office figures, not a single asylum seeker who arrived across the Channel by boat has been returned to France since Brexit. The new deal with France vaunted by Ministers in November 2022 will not change this – it only covers reinforced measures on the French side to prevent people embarking.
Post-Brexit, many people the UK needs either cannot come - for example, because the vacant jobs concerned do not pay over £25 700 a year - or do not want to come.
Without free movement, the UK is unattractive to highly-skilled people – like doctors and nurses - from Europe, who have the choice of over 30 other countries where free movement does apply. The UK is also unattractive to those – for example fruit pickers - looking for short-term work, who now face enormous bureaucracy in return for minimal rights.
But free movement is not just about living and/or working elsewhere in the EU.
Brexit is making even going on a short holiday more complicated.
Given that the UK has never been in the Schengen travel area, some checks were already necessary at ports and airports even before Brexit. But now those checks need to be more detailed, and passports need to be stamped every time a British person enters or leaves the EU. Even if each person or car spends only 30 seconds or a minute more at a border post, this quickly leads to enormous queues, as we have seen this summer.
This is likely to become even worse once the current system of manual checks on non-EU citizens is replaced by a biometric system, probably in May 2023. Some experts expect this to quadruple border crossing times, with those travelling by car likely to be required to step out of their vehicle.
The UK is not part of European schemes – it opted out of these even before Brexit - to encourage the migration of skilled people or to provide legal routes to resettle people from war-torn parts of the world. If there are no legal routes, desperate people will try other means.
The UK receives – and always has received - relatively few asylum claims compared to many EU countries: in 2021, EU countries overall received about double the number of applications per capita as the UK6. In 2020, when compared with EU countries, the UK ranked 14th in terms of the number of asylum applications per capita.
Brexit has also made it more difficult to work and exchange crime and justice information with authorities in EU countries, notably to prevent known criminals from entering the UK. In particular, UK border authorities no longer have instant access to the full data held by authorities in the EU. The UK is no longer a member of the EU’s crime-fighting body Europol.
The UK is now also outside the European Arrest Warrant scheme, which means it is now more difficult to extradite to the UK from Europe people who have committed serious offences in the UK. In the past, the EAW enabled the arrest of, for example, terrorists who had plotted explosions in London in 2005. Between 2009 and 2014, 63 suspects for child sex offences, 27 for rape and 44 for murder were extradited back to Britain to face charges.
All this means Brexit has left the UK more vulnerable to organised crime, including terrorism, major financial crime and people trafficking.
Free movement is not unconditional under EU law. People who arrive seeking employment and have not found a job after three months can be removed, unless they have other means of supporting themselves. Students must be able to prove they are undertaking a genuine accredited course of study. People who have not contributed cannot get pensions or claim out-of-work benefits. It was a myth that someone could just ‘turn up at Dover and sign on the dole’. Free movement brings in much needed tax revenue that pays for public services.
Leavers said free movement was unfair, that millions came to the UK but few Brits worked in the EU and that post-Brexit, everyone who wants to come to the UK has the same opportunities.
But at least a million Brits were resident in the EU in 2016, most of them working. There were indeed many more EU citizens in the UK. But they have contributed hugely to the UK economy. Other member states also received - and welcomed – big net inflows. For example, Germany’s net migration figures in 2021, despite the pandemic, increased to 329,000 people.
What is more, the end of free movement has not reduced net migration to the UK, as leading Leave campaigners claimed it would. In the year to June 2022, net migration (immigration minus emigration) to the UK was 504 000, the highest figure on record, and this despite 51 000 net emigration from UK of EU citizens. 704 000 non-EU citizens arrived by legal routes (compared to an estimated 35 000 by small boats).
Even when those arriving from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan on humanitarian visas granted in exceptional circumstances (up to around 200 000) are discounted, it is clear that the UK will remain a destination for inward migration for study and work.
The effect of Brexit and the end of free movement has been that those coming for work tend to have fewer rights, be more easily exploited and probably more rather than less likely to undercut UK workers. There is also some evidence that those in highly-skilled categories such as health workers are now more likely to come from developing countries who are less able than richer EU members to spare them.
Given that it can take months to obtain visas even for those entitled, it is no longer possible for employers to fill vacancies as quickly and flexibly as under free movement, and this is clearly part of the explanation for labour shortages seen in both high-skilled (health) and less skilled (hospitality) sectors of the UK economy.
One of the hardest hit sectors is agri-food, where many jobs are seasonal and short-term. Even where schemes allowing people into the UK to perform relatively low-paid jobs exist, it is often less worthwhile for workers from far away than for EU workers to come to the UK for short periods.
Conversely, the absence of free movement to the UK now means EU 27 workers often find it more attractive to find seasonal work in other EU Member States, where their rights are better protected, they can more easily move from job to job and where they can come and go as they wish without red tape.
Perhaps most importantly of all, freedom of movement is a reciprocal right within the same economic area – a right which millions of UK citizens took advantage of, now snatched away by Brexit.
Polling across the EU shows massive support for free movement and it is often selected as the EU’s most popular policy. In most EU countries, it is regarded as a different issue from immigration.
There is huge evidence that free movement did not in general mean lower pay for British people. And it is open to EU governments to adopt - or allow employers and workers to agree - sectoral pay and conditions deals that remove any such risk. Many countries, like the Nordics, do just that.
Brexit, unlike free movement, has cut wages in real terms. Brexit has contributed to soaring inflation and reduced purchasing power for the vast majority of people. For example, an LSE analysis says UK food prices have shot up by 6% as a direct result of Brexit.
The way to deal with pressures on public services in some regions due to large numbers of incoming workers is to do what other countries do – use the benefits of free movement to provide flexible funding to support public services where necessary.
Ending free movement has removed the rights of Brits – including performers – to work short-term abroad red-tape free. Visas are now usually necessary for working visits (except business meetings), even if someone is going to be working for their usual UK employer while in the EU.
Long-term work in the EU requires a work permit granted by the host country – there are no EU- eligibility rules. UK professional qualifications are no longer automatically recognised in the EU.
British citizens still have the right to enter the EU visa-free. But from late 2023, all non-EU citizens, including Brits, who do not need full visas will need to apply and pay for a digital visa waiver, under a new EU scheme known as the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). The UK is planning to introduce a similar scheme for visiting EU citizens.
UK citizens – as we are no longer EU citizens - are limited to spending 90 days in any 180 period, calculated on a rolling basis, as a visitor in the EU. As a result, some British people who used to spend long periods at second homes in the EU, while retaining a British base, have had to sell up.
Many British pensioners living in the EU – even if they have secured resident status under the Brexit citizens’ rights agreement between the UK and EU – have faced additional red tape challenges, notably over health care rights. They have also suffered a drop in the real value of their pensions owing to the weakening of sterling, as financial market confidence in the UK has fallen post-Brexit.
Red tape complications have also led to some British residents of some EU countries losing the right to drive their vehicles.
Before Brexit, British travellers in the EU and EEA could get EHIC cards allowing them access to state funded healthcare on an equal basis with residents of the host country. The government has introduced a replacement Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) scheme for UK travellers – but that may not benefit from the Europe-wide recognition EHIC cards brought.
Roaming charges for reasonable use of mobile telecoms and data anywhere in the EU and EEA were definitively abolished by EU law in 2017, having largely been scrapped under earlier regulation. Those rules no longer apply to the UK. Three of the four main UK mobile operators are now charging extra fees – often a flat £2 per day - when Brits use their phones in Europe.
Brexit has also made going on holiday with a family pet considerably more complicated. Pet owners now need to make arrangements with their vets to obtain documentation four months before travelling, with subsequent visits for vaccination and examination. This process now costs up to £300 and is valid only for one trip. EU pet passports – no longer accessible to Brits – are valid for the life of the animal, provided routine vaccinations and treatments are kept up to date.
The easy movement of students both from the EU to the UK and vice-versa was a significant benefit of EU membership. But this, too, no longer applies: British students must obtain visas for long-term study in the EU. Meanwhile, higher fees and red tape are also discouraging EU students from applying for courses in the UK – formerly a major source of revenue for the UK economy as well as of young talent, given that a significant proportion of such students stayed in the UK to work after graduating. That option is no longer open to many of them - especially the less wealthy.