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How Will Brexit Impact Immigration Policy?

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

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At the time when Brexit is finalised in March 2019, the UK will not be bound by EU law on free movement of persons anymore, and a new immigration system may be developed. In this article, I am going to talk about what the old immigration system is (currently still in force though), how this system may be changed in the future, and more importantly, what impact will this new system bring us?

The key to understanding the old immigration policy for the EU citizens is the principle of free movement of persons. So what does the free movement of persons mean? It essentially means the right for people to move freely from one State to another and this is a distinguishing feature of a common market.[1] Under the EU law, EU citizens are free to move, live and work in any EU country. Article 45 TFEU allows workers to move freely across the EU to seek and take up employment in another Member State on the same terms as nationals. Article 48 TFEU extends the same rights to the self-employed. The original idea behind Article 45 and 49 TFEU was to enable workers and the self-employed from the Member States with high levels of unemployment to move to other Member States with high levels of employment.[2] Therefore, net migration (net immigration is the difference between the number of people entering the UK and the number of people leaving) from EU countries to the UK has increased dramatically in the last decade.

The next question is how the immigration policy will change after Brexit. At present, the UK government only places restrictions on work visas issued to non-EU citizens. The worst possibility would be that EU nationals are going to be treated in the same way as those non-EU nationals are. In other words, EU citizens would need to apply for a visa to work in the UK. The current quota for working visas is 55,000 (5,000 for Tier 1 and 50,000 for Tier 2). Apparently, it would be unlikely to fulfil the need of both EU and non-EU nationals. The question for the government is whether the current quota should be expanded. Even the answer is yes, the visa quota is not very likely to rise significantly at once, and the executive may face making a decision on which skill group to allow.[3] The answer to the latter question may be the high-skilled workers. The UK’s current working visa requirement on non-EU nationals does not admit low-skilled workers, and if EU citizens are going to face the same policy, three-quarters of them might not meet the visa requirement.[4]

The potential problem of lacking low-skilled workers could bring some damaging effects to the UK economy. According to Migration Observatory analysis of 2017 APS, there is a large number of EU immigrants working in low-skilled jobs, such as fruit-picking and cleaning. It was found that 503,000 EU citizens were working in low-skilled jobs, such as cleaning and waiting; 781,000 were working in lower-middle jobs, such as drivers and care workers; 616,000 are working in upper-middle jobs, such as building trades and chefs; and 537,000 are working in high-skilled jobs, such as teachers and managers.[5] Migration Advisory Committee said in an interim report: ‘Employers were fearful about the future migration system might be.’ ‘Many employers in lower-skilled sectors have built a business model in which the ready availability of European Economic Area (EEA) migrant labour played an important, sometimes vital, role.’ From the above figures, it is not hard to conclude that some sectors of the UK economy have become reliant on EU workers, and they are ‘struggling not to recruit and retain EEA workers’.[6] It should be noted that EU workers do have other choices under free movement so it cannot be assumed that they will continue to come to the UK after Brexit, even many UK employers do wish them to.

One possible way to ensure the continued supply of labour after Brexit would be to allow an employer or an organisation to sponsor visas for lower-skilled workers. Precedents in the UK include the Seasonal Workers Agricultural Scheme (SAWS) and the Sectors Based Scheme (SBS) for hospitality and food processing. However, the model of employer-driven work permits does have drawbacks from a policy perspective.[7] It is the government that chooses which occupations need migrant workers the most, and this is a political and analytical challenge. In addition, from the experience of other countries which have similar lower-skilled workers schemes, it is not hard to find problems such as not receiving the pay and conditions outlined in the contract,[8] fraudulent job offers or high fees charged by recruitment agencies,[9] or substandard accommodation and health and safety violations.[10] In contrast, high-skilled workers are eagerly wanted, they would be qualified for five-year work permits and could eventually apply for residency.[11]

There is not much time left for Brexit, but so far the post-Brexit immigration policy still remains unclear. As noted above, allowing an employer or an organisation to sponsor a work visa for the lower-skilled workers could be a potential option, but the drawbacks of it may discourage EU citizens to come to work in the UK, especially when EEA workers have other choices such as switching to Germany, France etc. If EU citizens are required to apply for a Tier 2 visa to work in the UK as other non-EU nationals, it would be likely for the government to expand the quota of the work visa. However, there may not be a dramatic rise of quota to accommodate all of the EU workers, since May has expressed the will of reducing total net migration to the tens of thousands. Therefore, a significant number of lower-skilled workers will not be able to meet the requirements, and many employers in the UK will not want to see this from happening. Why? Because now there are approximately three million EU nationals living and working in the UK, and the vast majority of them are working in the lower-skilled sectors.

Since the start of Brexit, industries such as farming, food and hospitality have already been reporting labour shortage. If the UK is leaving the EU without a proper substitute for free movement, the lower-skilled workers will lose the right to work in the UK, and subsequently, there will be more UK employers facing a shortage of lower-skilled workers, and this may eventually have an impact on the UK’s economy. What does the cut of lower-skilled workers mean for people’s everyday life? One example would be that one-day delivery may not exist anymore, or the delivery fee will rise significantly, simply because the number of drivers is not enough.

Yuxin Li

Brexit Section Editor

30 November, 2018


[1] Catherine Barnard, The Substantive Law of the EU, (OUP 5th edition 2016) [203]

[2] n1 [238]

[3] Jonathan Wadsworth, Swati Dhingra, Gianmarco Ottaviano and John Van Reenen, ‘Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK’, Centre for Economic Performance London School of Economics and Political Science, June 2016, accessed on 28 October 2018 <>

[4] Sarah O’Connor and Gonzalo Vina, ‘What will Brexit mean for immigration?’, Financial Times 24 June 2016, accessed on 28 October 2018

[5] The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford < >

[6] Jill Ward, ‘UK Employers Concerned About Brexit Migration Restrictions’, Bloomberg 27 March 2018, accessed 28 October 2018 < >

[7] n5

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Parliament of Australia, 2016, chapter 7

[11] Emily King, ‘Brexit and the future of immigration in the UK and EU’, Financier Worldwide January 2018, accessed 28 October 2018 <>

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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