- Anti-Brexit protestors in London.
- The government could stay within the single market – or retain close access – at the same time as limiting free movement, which allows citizens to move freely around Europe.
- Immigration was a central force behind Brexit, but MPs say that safeguards and provisions within a Norway-style Brexit deal could be enough to place sufficient restrictions on immigration to satisfy the public.
- Committee chair Yvette Cooper MP said “there has been no attempt by the Government to hold any kind of sensible debate on it or build any kind of consensus on immigration” since the 2016 referendum.
LONDON – Theresa May could keep Britain within the EU single market after Brexit while still placing new controls on immigration, according to a cross-party report by MPs.
The Home Affairs select committee found that if May backed down on her Brexit “red lines” and sought a Norway-style arrangement with close participation in the single market, a number of measures to limit migration might still be possible.
Those include “emergency brake” provisions, controls on access to the UK labour market, and further measures which build on the ultimately failed negotiations carried out by former prime minister David Cameron.
The proposals would likely enrage Leave-supporting MPs, who have railed against May’s latest Brexit proposals because they would keep the UK closely linked with Brussels.
The government has repeatedly pledged to end freedom of movement after Brexit, the policy which allows EU citizens to live and work freely across the continent without visa approval.
It was a central issue in the 2016 referendum campaign, and the report acknowledged that two-thirds of British voters wish to see immigration levels reduced.
But the report suggested that a bespoke deal could allow the UK to retain free movement – and therefore full access to Europe’s single market – and limit immigration at the same time.
Moving towards Norway?
If the UK sought membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) like Norway, for example, the UK could fall back on the safeguard clause embedded in Articles 112 and 113 of the EEA Agreement.
That provision allows for the application of an “emergency brake” on free movement in circumstances of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature.”
Both Lichtenstein and Switzerland are non-EU members which operate forms of the emergency brake.
The report highlighted a number of other potential policy proposals, including a “prior job offer” system in which jobseekers did not have the right to reside in the UK unless they already had an offer of employment, or a “regional emergency brake” which would allow devolved administrations to impose restrictions for a time-limited period, based on economic data and demand for public services.
Any move to retain free movement – even with extensive controls – would be very difficult for the current administration to push through because it would face a revolt on two fronts.
The EU has already made it explicitly clear that it perceives any attempts to water down free movement as an attempt to divide the “four freedoms,” which are central to the bloc’s founding philosophy.
And Conservative Brexiteers are already deeply unhappy with May’s proposals because they would see the UK aligned with some rules. A deal which sought to keep the UK within the single market and retained the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would likely be rejected in parliament.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the committee, said it was time for the government to have a “measured debate” on post-Brexit immigration after the “misinformation and tensions” over the subject during the referendum campaign in 2016.
“Immigration was one of the central issues during the referendum and it divided the country, but sadly there has been no attempt by the Government to hold any kind of sensible debate on it or build any kind of consensus on immigration since,” Cooper said.
“That is deeply disappointing and it has left a vacuum – and it’s really important that people don’t exploit that again.”