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Immigration control within freedom of movement – can we already do more?

We can already tighten immigration on EU nationals in the UK within freedom of movement. The UK has just chosen not to.


In its news of Theresa May’s impending speech on Tuesday, the Guardian reported a debate in the House of Lords on freedom of movement. It made me realise that I didn’t know as much as I thought. And perhaps I wasn’t alone in this. The point raised in the Guardian article is that we can already tighten immigration rules within the existing freedom of movement framework. The UK has just chosen not to.

Freedom of movement – beyond three months

At the debate, Labour’s Lord Dubs asked whether there was a difference between how the UK implements freedom of movement and how other EU countries do it. He then highlighted that in many EU member states, other EU nationals are only allowed to stay beyond three months if they are “exercising a treaty right”. And that this means that they should be working, self-employed, self-sufficient or studying.

The UK does not enforce this but other countries in the EU do. Why? We don’t know but it’s a good question. It would obviously require more administration but whatever we do in terms of immigration for EU nationals is going to require even more administration.

You can see more on the debate at hansard.parliament.uk.

Speaking to the Guardian about the debate, Lord Rosser said that it looks like the government “hasn’t applied the rules on free movement as tightly as it could have” and that it was “a false assertion” that Brexit is the only way to reduce immigration from the EU.

… the argument that Brexit is the only way of reducing numbers coming to the UK from the EU is based on a false assertion.”

Lord Rosser, Labour peer

What the EU directive on freedom of movement says

The EU directive on freedom of movement allows EU nationals to live in another EU country for up to three months “without any conditions or formalities.” However, stays beyond three months is subject to “certain conditions, depending on their status in the host country.”

People working (whether employed or self-employed) don’t need to meet any other conditions to stay longer. But students, retirees and other people not working “must have sufficient resources for themselves and their family, so as not to be a burden on the host country’s social assistance system, and comprehensive sickness insurance cover.”

You can see the key points from the EU directive on freedom of movement at eur-lex.europa.eu.

The last point above about people not working requiring “comprehensive sickness insurance cover” is something that has come up for EU nationals in the UK who are in the process of applying for permanent residence. It was raised in a House of Lords report on EU citizenship rights. And it was raised as an issue because many people didn’t realise it was a requirement. The UK has never implemented it as such. But in the application form for permanent residency, EU nationals require it as “proof of residency” if they haven’t been working.

Angela Merkel has previously said that she believed that there was room for manoeuvre for there to be changes within the framework of freedom of movement. But she did also insist that there could not be an exception for Britain on freedom of movement.

Even if the UK was to implement the freedom of movement more fully, it’s probably not enough to appease the most vocal Brexiteers. But it’s worth including in discussions. At the very least, it’s worth looking at what other countries do already.


Image: © Hadrian / Shutterstock, Inc.
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