Around 930,000 European nationals currently call London their home and many have lived for years in the UK without needing any immigration permission. For those of us born into the European Union, free movement is not just an abstract concept that politicians argue about, it is a daily reality that has shaped the course of our lives. Whether we have spent time studying abroad under the Erasmus program, own a second home in another EU country or have based our lives and careers in a different member state, our lives are intertwined with the European project.
While views may differ on the Brexit issue, it’s obvious that those European nationals who live in the UK now will be able to stay if the UK chooses to leave the EU, isn’t it? Actually, it’s not at all clear.
There is a distinct lack of clarity from the politicians on what will happen if the UK votes to leave the EU in June 2016, partly because it’s impossible to tell in advance how the remaining 27 EU states will react. Nobody knows what impact a Brexit would have on the immigration status of EU nationals living in the UK because there is no precedent.
At one extreme are those who warn that if the UK were to leave the EU, British nationals could be asked to apply for visas before travelling to mainland Europe. This would enable the UK politically to retaliate by imposing visa restrictions on EU nationals. From a legal perspective, if the UK pulls out of Europe, the legal basis for European nationals’ stay in the UK, the EU treaties, could no longer apply. Some experts argue that a principle of vested or acquired rights would protect free movement at least for a transitional period, but that is currently an untested theory.
At the other end of the spectrum, many assume that the UK would enter into some kind of free trade agreement with the EU that would protect the free movement of workers, goods, services and capital that has been so fundamental to the European Union.
The truth is, we just don’t know at this stage how it will pan out.
What we do know is that the UK government has already made it harder for European nationals to get British passports. In November 2015, they introduced the requirement for EEA citizens resident in the UK to acquire a permanent residence document before they can naturalise as British citizens. This adds another hoop, and a not altogether straightforward one, to the process of becoming British. There are no special measures for European nationals who have been here for more than the requisite minimum period – no matter whether you have been here for 30 years or 5 years, the path towards a British passport is now longer than it used to be.
Even if the UK votes to remain in the EU, the immigration landscape for Europeans in Britain will change if the UK-EU deal takes effect. This summary of the impact of the deal by Professor Steve Peers is excellent and very thorough. In a nutshell, it will get harder for European nationals to bring their non-European family members to the UK.
European nationals living in the UK are increasingly becoming interested in the options surrounding British citizenship for them and their children born here. They need to bear in mind that it is much easier to bring non-European family members to the UK as an EU national than it would be as a British national.
It would be great to have a crystal ball and see what the outcome of the referendum will be. Whichever way it goes, the status quo is unlikely to remain for long.
Helen Smith, Immigration Lawyer, North Star Law
2 March 2016