Political Britain in 2016 is bursting with questions, and is very short on answers.
Good policy cannot be formulated in a few paragraphs. It seems to me that one of the reasons for Britain’s current political complications is that too many people, too often and too loudly, believed that serious policy questions are answerable in 500, or 50, or 5 words. I don’t attempt detailed policy here, lest this piece contribute to that unfortunate trend.
The only 5-word answer that maintains the current rights of European migrants in Britain, and British migrants in Europe, is “UK membership of the EU”.
However, here we are, looking for alternatives.
There was an overnight change in the de facto legal status of EU migrants in the UK. On June 23rd, it was “permanent”. From June 24th, it’s been “we’ll see”. For an immigration status, that’s disconcertingly precarious. When it is known that there will be some undetermined change at some undetermined point in time, it is dishonest to maintain, as the British government does at the time of writing, that there is “no change”. When making life choices, most people like to factor in the future. To assume that EU migrants will carry on as if nothing has changed displays an extraordinary lack of attention to human decision-making.
The UK government has two broad policy alternatives for how to begin to resolve the EU migrant question.
One option is to do what a large number of opposition politicians have demanded, and guarantee some subset of current rights. If the UK remains in the single market with free movement, it may be possible to write the full current rights into new agreements. However, if free movement is curtailed, the UK alone cannot promise that other EU states will, for example, recognise working years in Britain as part of an combined European pension when that pension is paid out in several decades’ time. The British government can grant rights within the UK, but it cannot, with the best will in the world, make a unilateral promise about the thousands of cross-border rights that all EU citizens enjoy. Any declaration of rights must either involve an arrangement akin to free movement, or if not, it is a considerable reduction in rights for British and EU nationals alike.
The other option is to slowly deter EU migrants from living here. Europeans, by and large, migrated with a normal life in mind: hard work, career, family, friends, and future plans. They, too, want to take back control. They did not sign up for immigration limbo, and until this summer, did not perceive themselves as outsiders. Most have clear future aspirations, excellent options elsewhere, and scant appreciation for the uncertainty of Brexit Britain.
The second option is probably better at reducing the overall number of migrants. However, a major disadvantage of the wait-and-see strategy is the predictable order in which Europeans will leave if life becomes uncomfortable. The first to go will be the ones Britain really wants: doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists. Research finds that stable, long-term migrants are the happiest kind. Many of them are shocked to the core by the blitzkrieg of 2016. The government cannot put them on hold until it figures out what it wants from Brexit. The choice now is between “make it better” and “let it get worse”.