The Windrush scandal last year was a national shame for Britain. Home Office policies to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants combined with bureaucratic blunders to leave immigrants who were invited to the UK up to 70 years ago and their offspring facing the loss of homes and jobs or even deportation. Now the new home secretary Priti Patel seems determined to set a fresh low in bad immigration decisions by announcing that freedom of movement for EU citizens will immediately be scrapped in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Free movement was inevitably set to end sometime after the UK departed the EU. It was, after all, a key desire of Leave voters in the 2016 referendum. Yet to announce it 10 weeks ahead of a possible no-deal exit, with so little clarity and time to develop and legislate on the new, points-based immigration system the government says it wants to introduce, is sheer irresponsibility.
The Institute for Government, a think-tank, questions whether doing so is even possible — and hence whether the government is serious. It would require legislation in parliament, which opponents could attempt to amend to block a no-deal Brexit. Either way, the announcement alone creates distress for EU citizens and confusion for business.
EU nationals resident in the UK for at least five years have been allowed since March to apply for “settled” status. More recent arrivals can apply for pre-settled status, allowing a further five years’ stay. The Home Office had said holders of either status would maintain current rights post-Brexit. While applicants must be living in the UK before it leaves the EU, the application period runs until 31 December 2020. To date, 1m of around 3.6m EU nationals in Britain have applied for settled status.
The Home Office has said Ms Patel’s new proposals would not affect the settled status process for EU nationals already resident in the UK. They would, however, create a mammoth headache for immigration authorities. Officials currently lack the means to differentiate between EU nationals already resident in the UK and new arrivals. Those without proof of settled status could potentially face lengthy and onerous checks after October 31.
Under former prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, free movement for EU nationals would have continued for two more years. It is hard not to see the warning that it would end immediately under a no-deal Brexit as part of Mr Johnson’s hardball negotiating strategy with the EU. It came as Mr Johnson wrote to European Council president Donald Tusk demanding the removal of the “anti-democratic” backstop designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland, and ahead of talks with Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The uncertainty the announcement has caused will hardly help Britain, however. Business leaders say it hampers forward planning and risks skills shortages even as they step up no-deal preparations. Freedom of movement offers a net positive to the economy. This newspaper will lament its passing. Yet even supporters of its removal must surely want it to be carried out in a legal, orderly and decent way. Using free movement, and its beneficiaries, as bargaining chips is a grave error.
The Home Office move threatens to worsen the likely aftershocks of a no-deal exit. It presents an image, too, of a hostile UK at odds with the post-Brexit picture of a “Global Britain” the government has tried to paint. Like Mr Johnson, Ms Patel is assuming the EU will blink first if only they apply sufficient pressure. Britain will be deeply damaged if they are wrong.