A ‘friends and family’ offer to Europe?

Leaving the European Union will lead to significant changes to United Kingdom immigration policy. Over the next year, the UK government will have to decide about the immigration offer it wants to make to the EU 27, as part of a broader post-Brexit relationship. The trade-off between market access and freedom of movement will be at the heart of the negotiations. But at present successful talks are seen as an impossibility: a political collision between the UK’s desire to control immigration and the EU’s wish to retain its four founding freedoms. With more imagination and will, however, another way is possible: an approach that gives the UK the control that it wants and offers the EU 27 preferential access to the British labour market.

Retaining the right to freedom of movement in its current form is not political feasible, given the results of a referendum in which immigration was a central theme. The UK could end up leaving the EU without an exit treaty. This would leave the UK free to determine its future immigration policy, but UK businesses would not have access to the single market.

More desirable is a Brexit deal that balances access to the single market for British goods and services with some changes to freedom of movement. Here the challenge is to devise an approach that has the support of the public, is fair to local communities and migrants themselves, is administratively simple, works for business, and is politically viable in Westminster and for to the EU and its member states.

There are a number of options that the UK might consider and some have already been discussed in the media. These include reforms within free movement, free movement with a job offer, an emergency brake, regional quotas system or a points-based system covering EU and non-EU nationals. However, we believe the option with the best chance of success is a three-tiered work visa system that gives EU nationals preferential access to the UK labour market.

In a new report, Britain’s immigration offer to Europe, we propose a three-tiered system where highly-skilled EU migrants retain their rights to free movement. The first tier would comprise a global talent route that would enable the brightest and best from any country to move to the UK. The second tier would consist of a reciprocal free movement routes with a salary or a skills threshold and might also confer the same rights for British nationals in the EU. This would enable EU nationals to work in the UK, providing the jobs they took exceeded a minimum salary or skills threshold.

The third tier is also a preferential system and would comprise sector-based quotas to fill low-skilled and semi-skilled work. Here EU nationals would be offered preferential access to set quotas of jobs, in horticulture, food processing or hospitality, for example.

This three-tiered approach should be offered alongside visa free travel and a fair deal for those EU nationals already living in the UK. There also need to be routes to citizenship and settlement for migrant workers, as well as other reforms to migration policy. These changes must include greater public involvement in policy decisions, together with funding to support integration and manage the impacts of migration on local communities. British Future wants an annual migration day in parliament, analogous to budget day, where quotas would be set and policy debated in a ways that provides greater scrutiny and accountability over decisions.

Our proposal means that employers would have access to highly-skilled workers, both from within the EU and elsewhere. Importantly, such a system is likely to secure public support. The referendum result was not a vote for an indiscriminate immigration crackdown. The overwhelming majority of the British public want to keep highly-skilled migration that is good for the economy, but want more control over the level and pace of low-skilled migration. Our proposal does this and brings low-skilled migration under UK government control.

Although it is not freedom of movement in its present form, it gives significant and preferential access to the UK labour market for EU citizens. The alternative will not, in any event, be continued free movement, rather a lose-lose situation, which is bad for both British and European economies and our citizens. Instead, we need an offer which could win support at home, and which is capable of securing support from our future trading partners in the European Union.

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Jill Rutter is director of strategy at British Future and a co-author of its new report Britain’s immigration offer to Europe: how could a new preferential system work? She tweets at @jillyrutter 

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