On Thursday 23 June 2016, a majority of the United Kingdom (UK) electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU) in a non-binding referendum. The result was 52% for Leave, 48% for Remain, on a turnout of 72% of potential voters.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has resigned, with effect from October. As of today, the UK government has not notified the European Council of any decision to leave the European Union (the next step in under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty once such a decision is made). Even once this notification is made, negotiations on the terms of the UK’s exit might take up to two years.
Until any withdrawal agreement is implemented, the legal situation of EU nationals currently living and working in the UK, and UK nationals resident in other EU countries, will not have legally changed.
However, any decision to leave and subsequent negotiations are likely to fundamentally change the UK immigration landscape, since the EU principle of freedom of movement of people would no longer apply to the UK.
How Could Immigration be Affected?
From an immigration perspective, many questions remain unanswered. Future migration from the EU into Britain, and in the other direction, would largely depend on the terms of the deal the UK makes with the EU.
Once outside the EU, and depending on the terms of any agreement with the EU, the UK could implement a new set of immigration rules, restricting future EU migrants’ right to live and work in the UK. During the referendum campaign, pro-Leave politicians repeatedly talked about extending the existing UK points based immigration system (for non-EU nationals) to EU nationals, if Britain decided to leave.
Such a change would likely make the UK a less attractive option as the location for company headquarters, and companies staying in the UK may find it easier to hire UK nationals than nationals of EU countries.
If the UK imposes restrictions on freedom of movement for EU nationals in the future, it is likely that other countries within the EU will impose work permit requirements for all British nationals seeking to work in their countries. In this case, employers operating in the EU, or in countries with reciprocal immigration agreements with the EU, might consider hiring EU nationals rather than UK nationals.
It is important to note, however, that any trade deal negotiated between the UK and the EU may require the freedom of movement principle to be respected, in which case the immigration landscape may remain essentially unchanged.
EU Nationals Already in the UK
There are approximately 3 million EU nationals already resident in the UK (and approximately 1.2 million UK nationals resident in other EU countries).
EU nationals (and their family members) living in the UK are not currently required to have their residence rights officially endorsed (i.e. apply for residence cards). However, EU nationals may optionally register, and, since last week’s events, many more are likely to choose to do so in order to prove and regularize their status.
There is likely therefore, even before the exit is formally triggered or any new agreement reached, to be a surge in applications being submitted to the Home Office by EU nationals seeking an endorsement of their right to remain, creating significant backlogs within the already burdened UK immigration authorities.
UK Nationals in EU Countries
Most (although not all) EU countries already have a formal residence registration requirement for other EU nationals staying for longer than 90 days. However, the referendum result will have left many UK nationals living in other EU Member States anxious about their futures. It is likely that many UK nationals in other EU countries who have previously not applied for permanent residency will be motivated to do so by the referendum result in order to shore up their status and, for some, to get on the pathway to citizenship of another EU Member State.