Hammond’s transition plans: Same, same but different

EU citizens will still be welcome but we don’t know for how long or what rights they’ll have. Same for Brits wanting to go to the EU post-Brexit.

“Same, same but different” is a phrase many visitors to Thailand are likely to have heard at some point. It’s a simple bit of obfuscation that avoids having to answer a question more concretely. This is pretty much where we are with the government’s plans for a transition (or implementation) phase.

I can envisage a situation where we start immediately after our exit from the European Union with many arrangements staying very similar to how they were the day before we left the European Union

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme on radio 4, the chancellor Phillip Hammond said “I can envisage a situation where we start immediately after our exit from the European Union with many arrangements staying very similar to how they were the day before we left the European Union”. And he added there was consensus in government that a transition deal lasting several years, but completed before the next general election is due in 2022, is needed.

So what does this mean for the UK’s membership of the single market, customs union and acceptance of free movement?

In his interview, Hammond said the UK will leave the single market and customs union when it leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. But this seems in contrast with the message he’s giving to businesses. The Financial Times reports a meeting the chancellor had with business leaders where he told them he wanted a transition deal that meant companies could have full access to the single market and customs union. This isn’t impossible but it does mean accepting the EU’s rules. It also sounds like the chancellor wants things to be pretty much the same but for it to be called something else: same, same but different. However, when you start delving into the detail of what this means, you realise there are important differences.

Yesterday, the immigration minister Brandon Lewis told the same radio show that free movement will end when the UK leaves the EU. However, he echoed what the Home secretary Amber Rudd said that EU citizens would continue to be welcome in the UK post-Brexit. As we wrote in a previous article, the difference would be that EU citizens arriving after March 2019 will be required to register with the authorities. This is already something EU member states can do within free movement. But as with other free movement restrictions, the UK has never implemented this.

Another key difference, however, is what the status of those arriving during this period will be. In the government’s position paper on citizens’ rights, EU citizens arriving during a “grace period” after the UK leaves the bloc can apply for a temporary residence permit but will be subject to future immigration controls when the “grace period” ends.

Government paper: Safeguarding the Position of EU Citizens Living in the UK and UK Nationals Living in the EU

Will the EU accept it?

The status of EU citizens arriving in the UK will likely matter to the EU in negotiations particularly if the UK wants full access to the single market during the transition phase. The EU may well insist that its citizens have full free movement (including the right to acquire permanent residence) for the UK to have full access to the single market.

Will EU citizens want to come to the UK? And what does this mean for Brits?

There is another problem with the government’s fudge on free movement during the transition phase and that’s whether people will still want to come. We’re already losing EU workers from the UK as a result of uncertainty over their status post-Brexit.

We’re also attracting fewer people. The Financial Times has a report on the sharp drop in EU applicants to the UK’s tech industry (it’s another in a long line of reports of growing labour shortages in the UK). The report features EU citizen Ivana Nentcheva, who moved to London attracted to the city’s vibrant start-up scene. She tells the newspaper that people were less likely to move here “not because the UK is not appealing any more but because they don’t want to invest a year and then have to leave”.

Basically, post-Brexit, we’ll still welcome people but we don’t know how long they can stay or what rights they’ll have.

The government’s transition plans effectively extend the uncertainty to EU citizens considering moving to the UK after March 2019. The other side of this, of course, is there is also uncertainty for Brits that may want to live, work or study in the EU during this time too.

Image: © Inna Sokolovska /
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