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UK to end EU freedom of movement immediately in no-deal

Rebecca Staudenmaier
August 20, 2019

The British government said if it were to leave the EU without a deal on October 31, freedom of movement rules would end at the same time, with no transition period. Critics have blasted the move as "reckless."

Border control at Heathrow Airport
Image: picture-alliance/empics/S. Parsons

The British government on Monday said it will end European Union freedom of movement rules immediately in the event of a no-deal Brexit on October 31. 

The move is a departure from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, who had said the government would end free movement "as soon as possible" if the UK left the EU without a withdrawal deal, suggesting the rules could be phased out. 

The Home Office said in a statement on Monday: "We are leaving the EU on 31 October come what may. This will mean that freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU."

What does this mean for EU citizens living in the UK?

For the more than 3 million EU residents in the UK, an immediate end to freedom of movement raises serious concerns. The British government has said that EU citizens are welcome to stay, but is encouraging them to register for a program called the EU Settlement Scheme.

The government says the program grants EU residents a status that will ensure they can remain in the UK and can continue to work or study. It also says it will ensure access to health care and public benefits.

To apply, residents must prove their identity, show that they are currently living in the UK and declare any criminal convictions.

Although freedom of movement is set to end on October 31, EU citizens still have until December 31, 2020, to apply for the program — as long as they were UK residents by this year's departure date.

Despite the government's assurances that the program does not leave EU residents in "legal limbo" and grants them time to apply, citizens' rights activists have raised doubts about the execution of the program.

In a phone call with the EU Settlement Scheme office helpline, activist and former Change UK candidate Nora Mulready said she was told that EU citizens would have difficulty reentering the UK if they hadn't applied by the Brexit departure date.

Those who hadn't applied "would no longer be entitled to [freedom of movement] rights to live and work and be in Britain," she said the office told her. 

What about people traveling to work or study?

EU citizens will still be allowed to visit the UK for vacation or for short trips, the Home Office statement said. The previous government put a cap on short visits at three months.

The immediate end to freedom of movement, however, would mean changes in the arrangements for people coming to the UK for work, to study or to stay for longer periods of time.

The British government has not elaborated on what those changes would be, saying that details of changes to the immigration system are still being developed and will be announced "shortly."

'Irresponsible and reckless'

The announcement on Monday troubled MPs across party lines, including some within Johnson's Conservative Party. MP Alberto Costa, who has been urging the prime minister to avoid pursuing a no-deal, tweeted that the latest development was "a wholly unworkable policy and deeply worrying."

Pro-Remain camps also came out to blast the decision, including the Liberal Democrats party, which has campaigned for a second referendum. In a tweet, the party said "this will hugely increase the damage caused by a no-deal Brexit. It is irresponsible and reckless."

Twenty-four British members of the European Parliament — the majority of whom were with the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrats parties — co-signed a letter condemning Home Secretary Priti Patel's "ill-chosen remarks."

"For the sake of the millions of EU citizens and their families that we represent, we ask that you immediately reconsider this cruel and anti-democratic policy," the letter said. 

Stephanie Burnett contributed to this report.

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