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Beyond Blue Passports: UK/EU immigration after Brexit.

In the last few days, there has been much debate about the UK government's intention to 'return' to blue British passports after Brexit. It's unfortunate that there have been false statements on both sides of the argument - that the change in passports will cost extra money (the contract was due for renewal anyway) and that the EU forced the UK to apply the burgundy colour (there's only a non-binding Resolution on this issue).


Some prefer the idea of a change in colour due to Brexit, but the issue isn’t about ‘sneering’ at people who might prefer one passport colour to another. In fact, aesthetically I prefer my previous UK passport colour (which was black, not blue). But a passport should be judged not by the colour of its cover but by the content of the rights it confers.



In that light, it’s a good moment to review the rules on visits and long-term immigration to the EU that will likely apply to UK citizens after Brexit. This is an update of a previous post from 2014 on this issue, except it should be noted that there will likely be separate rules on UK citizens who already live in the EU27 states on Brexit Day – on the basis of the withdrawal agreement, as partly agreed earlier this month. I have discussed that partial deal separately and so I won’t discuss that category of people further again here. My focus is on UK citizens who are still in the UK on that point (and who do not also have the citizenship of an EU27 country).

There are several general points at the outset. First, it seems likely that a transition period will be agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement (see discussion here). This may well mean that EU free movement law continues for a short period longer to apply between the UK and the EU after Brexit Day. Those who move during the transition period will likely be treated the same as those who moved before Brexit Day, although this has yet to be confirmed.

Secondly, EU immigration law (by which I mean the EU laws generally governing the immigration status of non-EU citizens) does not apply to all Member States. In particular, the rules relating to short-term visas and borders (and aspects of irregular migration) deriving originally from the Schengen open borders agreement don’t apply to the UK or Ireland. They only partly apply to Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia (although those States are meant to join in future) and have been extended outside the EU, to Schengen associates: Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The rules relating to longer-term legal migration and asylum apply to all Member States except Ireland and Denmark, but not to any non-EU countries (other than the Dublin rules on which State to apply for asylum in, which apply to the Schengen associates).

Crucially, this means that immigration between the UK and Ireland after Brexit isn’t directly affected by any of the laws discussed in this blog post. Also EU free movement law will still apply to UK citizens who are family members of EU citizens who move to another Member State.

Thirdly, the following analysis is based on EU law as it currently stands, as it is applied to countries like the UK post-Brexit: ie, relatively wealthy non-EU countries which do not have free movement with the EU. I’ll indicate where the law is currently being revised. It’s possible that some special post-Brexit deal on some or all aspects of immigration, falling short of free movement, might be agreed between the EU and UK after Brexit. While this prospect can’t be discussed in detail, since the UK government has not indicated whether it would even wish to seek such an agreement and so there’s no indication of what the content might be (or whether the EU would agree to it), I’ll discuss this prospect generally in a final section.

Finally, while some might try to argue that any new difficulty for UK citizens moving or travelling to the EU after Brexit would constitute some form of ‘punishment’ by the EU, this would be profoundly dishonest. The UK government seeks – as most Leave voters supported – to become a non-EU country without free movement after Brexit. Ending free movement law necessarily means that it’s not only harder for EU citizens to visit and stay in the UK, but also the other way around: the clue is in the words ‘free movement’. It should not be too much to hope that people have the integrity to accept the responsibility for the consequences of the outcome which they advocated.



Victoria train station in London, UK. (Dreamstime / Paop)

Visas and border controls

‘Visas’ are an issue for both longer-term immigration and short-term travel; here I’ll discuss short-term travel, which (like border controls) has been fully harmonised by the EU as part of the Schengen process. While it’s sometimes argued that UK citizens will face short-term visa requirements to visit the EU after Brexit, the current law of the EU (the visa list Regulation) suggests that they will not (as I discuss in more detail here). That’s because it’s EU policy not to apply visa requirements to fairly wealthy non-EU countries, or to most neighbouring EU states, provided that the countries concerned reciprocate by not imposing visa requirements on EU citizens.

However, the EU is planning to set up an electronic travel advance authorisation system (ETIAS). I previously discussed this idea here; in the meantime, the legislation to establish ETIAS has been proposed by the Commission, agreed by the Council and is now under negotiation with the European Parliament. The text as agreed by the Council (and the most recent EP/Council negotiation text) would apply the ETIAS to all non-EU countries without free movement, therefore including the UK. Some in the UK would like to set up a parallel system after Brexit, which would apply to EU citizens in return. (Note: I assume that during any transition period in the withdrawal agreement, the UK will temporarily be defined as a non-EU country which does apply free movement. The focus here is on what happens after that).

What about queues at border controls? At present, the Schengen borders code sets up a fast track solely for those with EU citizenship or nationality of a state with a free movement deal (see Articles 8 and 10). So UK citizens will no longer be fast-tracked at those borders after the end of free movement rules, unless the UK and EU negotiate an unprecedented special arrangement. Those who assert with certainty – like this MP – that nothing will change as regards longer border queues are therefore misstating the legal position. The comparison with Switzerland by the same MP is even more bizarre, given that Switzerland has signed up not only to free movement but also to the Schengen system.

UK citizens will also be subject to the planned EU entry-exit system, on the basis of newly adopted legislation, once that system is set up. Again, that system, which will take records of all those entering and leaving the EU, will apply to all non-EU countries without a free movement agreement. Similarly, UK citizens who have a record of criminal offences or immigration law breaches will be subject to entry bans for the entire EU enforced by means of the Schengen Information System (which is being revised), for the same reasons. (The UK currently participates in other aspects of that System, as regards exchanges of criminal law and policing information, but it remains to be seen if this remains the case after Brexit: see further discussion here).


Long-term migration

Of course there will still be some UK citizens moving to EU countries on a long-term basis after Brexit. The point is that they (like EU citizens moving in the other direction) will no longer have the right to do so on the very liberal terms set out in free movement law, but instead will be moving on the basis of more restrictive rules set out in national law. On the EU side, those national laws have been partly harmonised by EU law. (Retirement of UK citizens in the EU will be entirely subject to the national laws of Member States).

First of all, as regards moving for work, there is EU legislation on highly-skilled non-EU migrants (the ‘Blue Card’ Directive, currently being revised as discussed here); the single permit Directive, which sets out common rules for equal treatment of non-EU migrants allowed to work; the Directive on seasonal workers (discussed here); and the Directive on intra-corporate transferees (discussed here). To some extent, this legislation sets only minimum standards or allows Member States to set up parallel national regimes.

As regards students and researchers, a revised EU law (discussed here) will apply from 2018 (so before Brexit). UK students will lose the right to equal treatment as regards tuition fees and admission in EU universities that they currently enjoy as EU citizens (unless otherwise agreed). However, according to ECJ case law (discussed here) non-EU students must be admitted if the (more stringent) standards in the current version of the EU legislation on non-EU students are met. (There’s no reason to think that case law won’t apply to the newer version of the law).

Family reunion for UK citizens who move to the EU will also be harder after Brexit, whether their family are UK citizens or citizens of other non-EU countries, on the basis of the standards in the EU’s family reunion Directive. While Member States can set higher standards than the Directive, they often do not do so.

Finally, what about asylum? EU citizens are all but banned from applying for asylum in other Member States (the exception is discussed here), but UK citizens will no longer be EU citizens after Brexit. Like the UN Refugee Convention, EU refugee law (which is currently being revised: see discussion here) defines a refugee as person who is outside their country of origin due to a genuine fear of persecution by reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. Persecution is defined as entailing some form of violence or other severe restriction on human rights. As things stand, despite obnoxious headlines from the UK’s most toxic newspapers, those calling for murder of Remain supporters are a tiny extreme fringe and there is no sign that the UK government is unable or unwilling to respond to any further violence which they might commit. Nor is there any move to lock up or ban the free speech of Remain supporters. Let’s hope this always remains the case.


Irregular migration

Finally, it should be noted that UK citizens who breach the immigration law of the EU and/or its Member States – which would obviously be more likely after Brexit as less liberal rules would apply – would be subject to the EU’s Returns Directive, which governs many aspects of the process of removing non-EU citizens who are not legally resident. This Directive has been subject to a relatively liberal interpretation by the ECJ, as I discuss here), but nevertheless it is rather more restrictive than the rules on expulsion or detention as set out in EU free movement law.


Special deal?

Could the EU and UK sign as special deal on immigration after Brexit? (I am leaving aside the likely transition period in the withdrawal agreement). As regards visas and borders, this would likely be an agreement with the entire EU, since the degree of harmonisation in this field means that the ECJ would likely rule that the EU has exclusive competence. In practice, the EU has been willing to sign treaties with non-EU countries on links with the border agency Frontex, and on visa waiver and readmission treaties. Would the EU be willing to go further, and (for instance) agree reciprocal non-application of the electronic travel authorisation rules on each side?

On legal migration, the EU has harmonised the law less and the Treaties reserve a national competence regarding the numbers of non-EU citizens admitted to work. Moreover, EU legislation in this field usually expressly states that Member States can enter into bilateral treaties with non-EU countries. So any agreement would either be ‘mixed’ (needing ratification by the EU and its Member States), or purely bilateral between the UK and individual Member States. In some cases the EU has been willing to sign an association agreement with non-EU countries which contains limited rules on immigration.

More broadly, the issue of whether the UK and EU should sign a special immigration deal after Brexit may form part of the broader talks, with some in the UK willing to offer a trade of limited preferential labour market access in return for bigger access to the EU services market, for instance. Others might be unwilling on principle to offer any commitment regarding immigration. One factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that such a deal would be reciprocal – preserving equally some possibility of facilitated immigration for UK citizens to the EU, not only the other way around.🔷


*This blog post was supported by an ESRC priority grant on "Brexit and UK/EU immigration policy"


Barnard & Peers: chapter 27, chapter 26

JHA4: chapter I:3, I:4, I:5, I:6, I:7


(This piece was first published in EU Law Analysis - Expert insight into EU law developments)


(Cover: Home Office.)


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Professor of EU, Human Rights & World Trade Law, University of Essex. Latest book: European Union Law (edited with @CSBarnard24, 2nd ed, OUP).
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