Immigration still a post-Brexit question

Editorial | Mary Ma 31 Jan 2020

Britain will cease to be a member of the European Union at midnight (7am tomorrow, Hong Kong time).

It marks a massive victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson after his resounding "do-or-die" pledge to leave the EU as he led the Conservative Party to a landslide election victory in December.

But the midnight milestone will be celebrated in low profile. Indeed, the change may not be noticeable at all to the British public.

That's because a transition period will immediately kick in and little will change before midnight on 31 December: only then will one of the most significant EU features - free movement of people - come to an end.

In principle, EU and non-EU citizens wishing to live and work in Britain will be treated exactly the same after the transition. That is in contrast to the existing arrangement which allows EU nationals to live and work in Britain without having to go through the Home Office bureaucratic red tape faced by people from outside the EU.

Immigration was a key issue dominating the debate prior to the 2016 referendum that sensationally voted in favor of Brexit, with a steady influx of citizens from eastern Europe raising the eyebrows of many British traditionalists.

Johnson's government is expected to have readied an alternative form of immigration control by the time the gate fully closes on 1 January, 2021.

The question is: will he make immigration more difficult, not just for EU citizens but also non-EU nationals, including Hongkongers?

Almost every time an immigration law is changed, the admission criteria usually become harder.

Johnson has not really revealed how he is going to control immigration, apart from referencing a points-based system resembling that of Australia.

The Australian-style system is designed to admit immigrants with skills that the country needs - and applicants do not necessarily need to secure a job offer in advance.

However, an independent commission tasked by the Conservative government refrained from endorsing that idea.

Instead, its report unexpectedly expressed preference for the Austrian model whereby skilled immigrants are generally required to have first secured a job offer - with the exception of medical services where doctors, nurses and carers have always been in short supply.

Although Johnson does not necessarily have to accept the commission report in full, it does again open up differing views on an issue that has always been at the heart of the Brexit argument and the British public.

If the divisive subject of immigration influenced the course of the Brexit debate over the past years, it will likely determine political talks again during the year-long transition, after which British people may discover they will still have to accept immigration - albeit in a different form.

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