UK to rip up EU 'freedom of movement' rules

Confusion reigns after officials announce end to migration on day one of Brexit.

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    High-speed Eurostar trains will still run into and out of the UK, but who will be on board, and what their rights may be, remains unclear [File: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]
    High-speed Eurostar trains will still run into and out of the UK, but who will be on board, and what their rights may be, remains unclear [File: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]

    London, United Kingdom - A shock decision by the UK's new government to end freedom of movement for European Union citizens on its scheduled Brexit departure date has caused widespread consternation.

    Alarmed groups representing Europeans and businesses have echoed politicians slamming the move scheduled for October 31, which was denounced as "ludicrous" by Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

    The decision, announced this week by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's new home secretary, Priti Patel, ends an existing policy to end free movement "as soon as possible" if Britain leaves the EU without transition arrangements in a "no-deal" Brexit.

    "It is absolutely reckless policymaking," said Kuba Jablonowski of the3million, an organisation representing EU citizens in the UK.

    "The substance of this announcement is very troubling because we don't know what ending freedom of movement means exactly - but if it means implementing checks on who is a permanent resident and who isn't from November onwards, then the infrastructure to do that is simply not ready."

    No-deal Brexit could cause UK food, fuel and medicine shortages

    'Legal limbo'

    The Home Office announced on Monday that it would end freedom of movement on day one of Brexit, dismissing claims it would leave EU citizens resident in the UK in "legal limbo". Officials insisted EU citizens will be able to stay under new residency arrangements.

    The "EU Settlement Scheme" covers Europeans and their families living in the UK before October 31, with the deadline to apply for "settled status" being December 31, 2020.

    In a statement, the Home Office said: "The prime minister has made it clear that all EU citizens resident here by 31 October will be welcome to stay and they are eligible for the EU Settlement Scheme."

    Ministers insist that no one eligible for settled status would be barred from re-entering Britain when free movement ends in November.

    However, the3million says the government has provided no details about how it will distinguish between EU citizens currently in the UK - including those who have successfully applied for settled status - and newcomers entering after November 1.

    "What is reckless and really damaging to the trust of EU citizens and their families in the British government is that they are not telling us how they plan to do this," Jablonowski said.

    "There will be a problem of distinguishing new arrivals from permanent residents from 1 November, and there will be a problem for those who are permanent residents and applied to the scheme and did everything the government asked and did it early - who will still have no means to prove what status they hold."

    Patel's decision was described as "utterly ludicrous" by Corbyn, who characterised it as "Windrush on steroids", in a reference to the recent mistreatment by immigration authorities of thousands of West Indians who came to Britain a generation or two ago.

    Corbyn added: "Does that mean that if an EU national living in this country, possibly as a doctor, a nurse, a trauma surgeon, all kinds of things, goes home to see their family in Germany or Czech Republic or wherever else, they are not allowed back into this country?"

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    London Mayor Sadiq Khan called the plans "cruel" and in a letter to Patel said they would be a "fundamental affront to British values of tolerance and respect".

    Practical hurdles

    The decision also highlights existing concerns about arrangements for EU citizens after Brexit.

    Jablonowski said there remains considerable uncertainty about precisely who is likely to be eligible to stay within the UK under the settled status rules, and particular concern about the status of the families of Europeans.

    While statistics suggest one million EU citizens have been granted this status under a procedure based on a complex application process - and not registration - two million had not yet applied or been successful under the scheme.

    It is absolutely reckless policymaking

    Kuba Jablonowski, the3million

    Jablonowski said: "There are multiple uncertainties over how many people the scheme is yet to reach and so to say that the dates may change is extremely irresponsible in a landscape that is already quite uncertain."

    Moreover, Joe Owen of the Institute for Government think tank indicated that plans to end freedom of movement may be undeliverable by October 31 anyway.

    "To do that in any meaningful way would cause major disruption - employers, citizens and universities are completely unprepared for this last-minute U-turn," he wrote.

    "On a practical level the plan is so close to impossible - if not entirely impossible - that one wonders whether the government is serious about making it work."

    Business implications

    Groups representing the 1.3 million UK nationals living and working in the EU say Patel's decision will almost certainly have reciprocal consequences for their members - potentially putting many out of work.

    Business organisations are also alarmed about the impact on the UK economy.

    Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, says businesses have been planning their workforce needs according to existing government guidance.

    "Any potential change to the rules at this stage of the game would only add further disruption to those that have been trying to prepare for the future," the Financial Times quoted him as saying.

    "At a time of critical labour shortages, UK firms need continued access to skills at all levels to fill local shortages when they arise."

    Jablonowski added that the latest decision also generates further uncertainty for the UK's public services in which many Europeans work.

    "If I were a European employer, a landlord, or a clerk in a GP's surgery, I would be now be wondering exactly what am I supposed to do on 1 November."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News