Boris Johnson’s government has pledged that its post-Brexit immigration policy will end free movement and preferential treatment for EU citizens coming to live in the UK.
The Conservative Party and ministers have vowed to make entry requirements subject to skills and job offers, as well as restrict benefits and increase charges for future EU migrants.
Critics have accused the Tories of portraying European incomers in overwhelmingly negative terms - bolstering a stereotypical impression that they tend to milk the system rather than contribute to it.
The UK goes to the polls on December 12 in an election that the prime minister hopes will give him the majority he needs to take the UK out of the EU by January 31.
The Conservatives – who have consistently led in opinion polls – have yet to publish their election manifesto but have given details of their immigration plans.
Immigration into the UK – especially from the EU under “free movement” principles – was a major issue in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Many voters responded positively to campaign slogans claiming that leaving the EU would enable the UK to take back control of its borders and laws.
The decade following EU enlargement in 2004 saw an estimated two million Europeans come to live and work in the UK, although numbers have significantly fallen since the Brexit vote.
An end to ‘free movement’
The Conservatives say freedom of movement for EU nationals will end in January 2021, when the planned transition period expires. People from the European Union coming to live and work in the UK will be put on the same footing as those from non-EU countries.
An announcement on the party website says “we will decide who comes here based on the skills they have to offer – not where they come from”.
“As we come out of the EU we have a new opportunity for fairness and to make sure all those who come here are treated the same. We will make our immigration system equal,” Boris Johnson has said.
The prime minister says he is pro-immigration but in favour of control. “I don’t think it’s right that we should have a system of immigration where there is, at the moment, no democratic control over huge numbers of people who can come in… without any checks whatever, without any job to go to,” he also said recently.
European Union law establishes for EU citizens a “right to move and reside freely” within the bloc. But after an initial three-month period, conditions are attached to the right to stay. New residents should not “become an unreasonable burden” on their host country’s welfare system. They may have to prove they are job-seeking and have a “genuine chance” of finding work.
Restrictions to free movement can also be imposed on grounds of public policy, security or health.
In theory, EU citizens who fail to meet the necessary criteria face expulsion, subject to safeguards.
'Australian-style' immigration system – inspiration or delusion?
“The vast majority will need a job offer to come to the UK to work, regardless of where they are from in the world,” says the Conservative Party’s announcement.
Boris Johnson advocates an “Australian-style points-based system” based on skills. “(This) will allow us to control who comes in, and make sure that we do not have so many people coming in without skills, without jobs to come to,” the prime minister has stated.
The government argues that this will protect wages and avoid an over-reliance on cheap labour from abroad.
“We want to make sure that the best and the brightest can come here, to contribute to the innovation and creating the jobs of the future, for people of this country,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC, while insisting that the government would "want to be able to plug gaps in specific sectors".
Such talk worries some business leaders. "If you do want to build 200,000 houses a year, you don't just need the architects and the designers, you need the carpenters, you need the electricians, you need the labourers,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the employers’ organisation the CBI, told Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on Sky News.
Heather Rolfe of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) argues that looking to Australia for inspiration is futile and will not work in the UK.
“EU migrants working in lower-skilled sectors and occupations might score highly on age but low on qualifications and potential earnings. A different system needs to be set up for what currently amounts for a substantial proportion of EU migration to the UK,” she wrote in an article for the LSE.
A 2017 survey of business opinion said EU immigration policy after Brexit was arguably the most important issue facing employers, along with access to the single market. “Complex rules and procedures will not deter employers from recruiting EU migrants since they largely do so out of necessity rather than preference or choice,” it reported.
Claims on services bring angry backlash
The Conservatives have come in for particular criticism over plans to alter arrangements concerning benefits and charges for new EU arrivals – and for ministers’ statements implying they are a drain on the system.
“We are going to also restrict benefits so that when people come over from the European Union they will have to wait like everybody else,” Security minister Brandon Lewis told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
Michael Gove has been accused of lying over claims he made about EU citizens’ “preferential access” to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).
“It’s unfair that people coming from European countries can access free NHS care without paying in while others make significant contributions,” the minister responsible for Brexit preparations wrote for the Mail on Sunday.
“EU citizens do not have automatic rights to health systems in EU states,” Nick Hatton of the EU citizens campaign group the3million told the Guardian. “In the first three months, you are treated like a tourist with no rights, and after three months, unless you are working or a self-sufficient, then you have no rights to the NHS.”
Gove’s comments brought an angry backlash on social media. “We all paid taxes and NI (national insurance). Hearing this ‘EU migrants do not pay in the NHS’ campaign rhetoric is upsetting and disgusting,” tweeted Alexandra Bulat, whose family are from Romania.
Steve Peers, a law professor at the University of Essex who has challenged the government's claims about EU citizens, accused the minister of “cheap xenophobia” and of being ignorant of one of the government’s own reports. “EU migrants contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services,” the Migration Advisory Committee reported in September 2018.
A study by Oxford Economics in 2018 said the average UK-based migrant from Europe contributed much more to UK public finances the previous year than the average Briton or non-EU migrant.
The Conservatives have plans to extend a surcharge for using the health service to all foreign workers, including EU migrants. Analysts say this may appear fair, once free movement ends.
However, the amount they may have to pay in future has been called into question. People coming to the UK for more than six months from outside the European Economic Area currently pay £400 (€466). The Tories want to raise the fee to £625 (€729).
The figure represents the average health costs incurred by migrants, according to the party, which it says are much higher than the surcharge. But the fact-checking charity Full Fact says the claim is wrong because it ignores immigrants’ tax contributions.
Critics have also pointed out that EU citizens access UK health care as part of a reciprocal arrangement which enables Britons to receive health care in EU countries.
Targets ditched – but will numbers come down?
The Conservatives have ditched a previous long-standing pledge to cut annual immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Boris Johnson has said that the new planned system “may mean in some sectors immigration comes down”.
Some ministers are more forthright in claiming that the new plans will help reduce the number of arrivals.
“We are not going to fix on an arbitrary target. By exercising a points system you bring it down year-by-year,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC.
“Immigration will finally be subject to democratic control, allowing us to get overall numbers down,” Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel said.
Critics of the government argue that it has failed to stem non-EU immigration, despite having the legal power to do so. Official figures show that net migration to the UK among non-EU nationals has continued to rise since the EU referendum. It is far higher than net migration among EU citizens, which has fallen sharply.