European Union | Key Topics


  • The vote to leave the EU gives the government an unprecedented opportunity to reduce current record levels of net migration (half of which comes from the EU). (Paragraph 1)
  • Net migration from the European Union currently stands at 180,000 a year. (Paragraph 2)
  • There are 3.2 million UK residents who were born in other parts of the EU, including 2.3 million workers. These residents should be allowed to remain in the UK post-Brexit, provided that there are reciprocal arrangements for the 1.2 million Britons who currently live in other parts of the EU. (Paragraph 7)
  • Free movement for EU tourists, students, genuine marriage partners, business visitors and the self-sufficient should continue. (Paragraph 13)
  • Looking ahead, work permits for EU nationals, restricted to those offered skilled jobs could reduce net migration by 100,000 a year. (Paragraph 14)

The vote to leave the European Union

1. The British public have now voted to leave the European Union. This historic decision will have significant implications for immigration control. Citizenship of the EU currently gives the holder the right to live, work and study in another member state. The government has indicated that, as part of the negotiations to leave the EU, it wishes to reform free movement rules to which the UK has been subject since joining in 1973. As a result there will be an opportunity to agree new immigration controls after Brexit, which could come as early as Spring 2019.

Immigration from the EU

2. Immigration was an important factor influencing the vote to leave the EU (see polling data reported here and here). Although EU migration has historically been quite low - between 1975 and 2003 it was only about 8,000 per year,.net migration of EU citizens is now 180,000 a year, having more than doubled over the last five years.

Why is EU migration currently so high?

3. Net migration from the EU has increased substantially since 2004 following the expansion to include eight more East European countries (known as the A8). The then Labour government decided against imposing transitional controls on workers from these countries, in contrast to most other EU countries. Only the UK, Ireland and Sweden allowed immediate and unlimited access to their labour markets.

4. The A8 countries were considerably poorer than Western Europe; at the time of accession, the UK’s level of GDP was five times higher than that of Poland, creating a significant pull factor for potential migrants. As a result, the population of Eastern Europeans residing in the UK has grown by 1.4 million since 2004. The Polish-born population alone rose by 750,000 between 2004 and 2015. In 2015, this community overtook those born in India to represent, for the first time, the largest contingent of foreign-born residents in Britain.

5. When Romania and Bulgaria (the A2) joined the EU in 2007 the government chose to impose transitional controls on workers. However, when these controls were lifted in 2014, the UK’s GDP was almost five times higher than that of Romania and Bulgaria; what followed was a significant net flow. Net migration of Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK was about 50,000 in 2015.

6. Meanwhile, the economic crisis which has engulfed the Eurozone area has resulted in very high levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, across Southern Europe. Partly as a result of this, net migration from parts of the EU14 has more than doubled since 2012 (see latest ONS net migration statistics here).

European citizens in the UK already – and British citizens currently living in the EU

7. There are currently just under 3.2 million residents of the UK who were born in other parts of the EU (see our briefing paper here). This includes 2.3 million EU-born people who are presently working in the UK. It is our position that they should be able to stay in the UK post-Brexit on the understanding that this arrangement is reciprocal with regard to the 1.2 million UK citizens currently living in other parts of the EU.

Issues surrounding upcoming negotiations to withdraw from the EU

8. The Prime Minister has indicated that Article 50 will be triggered no later than March 2017. The High Court decided on 4th November 2016 that the government must consult Parliament before triggering Article 50. The degree to which the timetable may or may not be affected by this is unclear at present. The invoking of Article 50 will commence a two-year period of negotiations on the terms of Britain’s exit. If no agreement is reached after two years, member states can extend this period by unanimous decision. Otherwise the UK will leave and negotiations will continue after Britain’s exit.

9. Much discussion in the media has focused on whether the UK should opt for a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit. A ‘soft’ Brexit means Britain remaining in the Single Market but leaving the EU. This implies that free movement of people will continue.

10. Some advocates of ‘soft’ Brexit have argued that negotiating an ‘emergency brake’ on migration, perhaps as a member of the EEA, would be enough to address the public’s concerns about high EU migration. However, the reality is that it would not work. Norway’s ‘brake’ is not entirely in Norwegian hands, requires consultation every three months and Norway has reportedly never used it for fear of EU retaliation (see our paper here).

11. A ‘hard’ Brexit would mean leaving the single market and negotiating a trade deal. This is likely to entail some trade barriers in the form of tariffs. This of course goes both ways and both UK companies wishing to sell their goods in the EU and EU companies wishing to sell goods in the UK would face tariffs. Importantly for immigration control, the UK would no longer be subject to free movement.

12. Leaving aside the merits a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit, it is clear that leaving the European Union offers a unique opportunity to fulfil the express wishes of the British public to reduce net migration to the UK and therefore slow the rate of population growth that we are currently experiencing.

Our proposed post-Brexit immigration policy

13. Any future immigration regime should seek to minimise disruption to the close social, business and historical ties that the UK shares with the rest of Europe. It should therefore allow for the free movement of tourists, business visitors, students, the self-sufficient, and genuine marriage partners who are good for the economy and add little to population growth.

14. This leaves workers who form the majority of migrants from the EU – 70% in recent years. Of those who have arrived in the last ten years, 80% are in low skilled occupations. The independent Migration Advisory Committee recently found that migration into lower-skilled work “had a neutral effect on UK-born employment rates, fiscal contribution, GDP per head and productivity” (See report here). We estimate that work permits, confined to those offered a skilled job could reduce EU migration by around 100,000 a year (see here).

Updated November 2016

We use cookies to help us improve the website.

I Understand About Cookies