UK's migrant workers face uncertain future
For migrant workers, it will all depend on whether the UK government decides to negotiate for free movement, or if it will impose a visa system. According to UN figures, there are some 3.3 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK, under minimal restrictions thanks to the European Union's free movement principles. UK-bound EU citizens tend to come in greater numbers from central and eastern Europe. Poles, for example, make up the most numerous group of non-British EU nationals living in the UK (883,000, according to the UN).
Much will depend on the post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. An immediate distinction is likely to be made between existing residents and potential new arrivals. Thankfully, nothing will change overnight; the UK will remain a member of the EU, while the official departure procedure is played out. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty imposes a two-year deadline and that provision is unlikely to be triggered for at least three months.
Sensibly, no one seems to be envisaging mass deportations. The Leave campaign themselves have advocated that EU migrants who have come to the UK legally would have the right to remain. Amid ongoing concerns however, many migrant workers have apparently been applying for British citizenship where possible.
It is likely that EU migrants would no longer have an automatic right to come to the UK to live and work, with reciprocal restrictions quite possibly imposed on Britons heading abroad.
Reference has been made to a points-based system for new applicants seeking to come to the UK, similar to the Australian model, which will seek to encourage talented migrants from both inside and outside the EU.
It has to be borne in mind that immigration from outside the EU currently represents more than half the overall total immigration figures for the UK.
According to a report in the Financial Times quoting research carried out by Oxford University's Migration Observatory, three-quarters of EU citizens now working in the UK would not meet current visa requirements currently applied to non-EU workers, so it is likely that a points-based system would seek a dramatic reduction in the number of migrant workers coming to the UK from the EU. The report further claims the impact would be particularly felt in sectors such as hotels and restaurants, farming, construction, manufacturing, energy and transport.
If we look by way of illustration to the members of the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are subject to the EU's existing rules of freedom of movement to gain unfettered access to the EU's Single Market. As such, their nationals have the right to live and work in the EU, and vice-versa. Commentators have also referenced the EU's arrangement with Switzerland as a possible way forward. While not a member of the EEA, Switzerland also signed a freedom of movement treaty with the EU to obtain unrestricted access to the Single Market. Should the UK decide to join the EEA, or something similar to what Switzerland has with the EU, the EU may well demand that Britain also accepts the freedom of movement principles. Given how sensitive the issue of immigration has been during the referendum campaign, we simply do not know if the UK government will be prepared to agree to the free movement of workers in exchange for unrestricted access to the single market.
As things stand, we really cannot predict what future immigration arrangements might be and while there is broad consensus that migrant workers currently here would be allowed to remain, it is understandable in light of the ongoing uncertainty that workers will take steps to seek British citizenship where they meet the relevant criteria.