Government warms to free movement as part of transition deal
Ministers also seem to be realising that they can already do more to manage migration within the EU’s free movement framework.
A second round of Brexit negotiations has now been completed. And an emerging theme seems to be that government still doesn’t know what it wants from Brexit. At a press conference following the conclusion of the this week’s negotiations, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said more clarity was needed from the UK on its positions on various issues including the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. The Guardian’s Brussels correspondent Jennifer Rankin tweeted the EU seemed irritated by the lack of detail from the UK.
EU side irritated by lack of detail from UK, especially on divorce bill.
‘We make better progress when our positions are clear,’ Barnier.
— Jennifer Rankin (@JenniferMerode) 20 July 2017
But this isn’t just the view from the EU, BBC News’ political editor, Laura Keunssberg reported a Whitehall source working on Brexit as telling her “I’ve got nothing to say” to EU counterparts because ministers were still not clear about the detail of what they want. The source added that ministers are “still focused on generalities rather than giving directions on the nitty gritty”.
It’s not just the withdrawal issues like the financial settlement that the government seems unclear about. There have also been mixed messages over what shape a transition deal could look like. Business leaders have called on the government to agree a transition deal as soon as possible and for this to include single market and customs union participation. However, at a meeting with business leaders a couple of weeks ago, Brexit secretary David Davis suggested this would be politically impossible.
And at this week’s PMQs (the last before the summer recess), Labour’s Pat McFaddon asked the prime minister whether the UK would leave the single market during any implementation period (which is the term Theresa May prefers to use rather than transition period). But her response was vague and only promised that at the end of Brexit negotiations, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU. As we pointed out in another post, the UK can leave the EU and still take part in the single market as well as accept the four freedoms so the prime minister’s response adds nothing of substance.
However, the government’s position on this now seems to be firming up around a transition/implementation period including free movement and therefore single market access. The Guardian reports a senior source saying that government ministers have accepted that free movement will be part of a transition deal that could last up to four years. The Financial Times also suggests this may be the case following a meeting between the prime minister and business leaders at the first meeting of a Downing Street business council yesterday. The newspaper reports May as promising business leaders that ‘she will not let companies fall over a Brexit “cliff edge”’.
Free movement: is the government finally realising it can do more to manage migration already?
The Financial Times further notes officials close to Brexit talks saying she would accept free movement for a two-year period. And it suggests that EU citizens coming to the UK during this period will have to register with the authorities. This shouldn’t be controversial. The EU’s directive on free movement already states that EU citizens seeking to stay longer than three months in another member state may be required to “register with the competent authorities”. This is just one of the restrictions on free movement the UK has chosen not to enforce. As the Guardian reports, a Home Office minister has also suggested the department did not hold data that would have allowed it to know whether EU migrants in the UK had secured jobs or not. The government also admitted that data on how many EU citizens had been removed under the EU’s free movement restrictions “could only be obtained at disproportionate cost”.
The revelations came following a questions from Lord Richard Rosser and Lord Peter Hain. Speaking to the Guardian, Peter Hain said “either the Tories are clueless on the ability under EU rules to return those not in work or they are covering up their abject failure to do so”.
The government’s acknowledgement that EU citizens may need to register with the authorities under any transition deal that includes free movement suggests it’s finally realising it can already do more within the EU’s existing framework.
Earlier this week, a new poll by YouGov found the majority of respondents (including a majority of those who voted leave) said they were willing to accept free movement for single market participation. The public seems to be warming to free movement and now the government does too.