24 Oct 2016, 19 mins ago

The debate about the post-Brexit immigration system in the UK continues and the negative comments about the potential for introducing a points-based system in the UK made by PM Theresa May at the G20 meeting last weekend added to the confusion about what the government strategy on that key front is likely to be.

One of the main goals of the Leave campaign prior to the June referendum was “taking back control of the borders” in light of a seemingly unstoppable influx of mainly low-skilled migrants from the EU. The solution would be an introduction of a points-based immigration system similar to the approach used in Australia over the past 30 years.

A points-based immigration system would not be entirely new in the UK. A system like this has been in place since 2008, although limited only to non-EU citizens. Under this approach, potential immigrants may apply for visas in one of four broad categories (Tier 1 for high value migrants, Tier 2 for skilled workers, Tier 4 for students and Tier 5 for temporary workers) subject to annual quotas and minimum requirements on English language skills, financial capacity, age, previous experience etc.

However, PM May quite clearly rejected the points-based system for the EU citizens in her G20 remarks. She argued that a system like this does not provide a sufficient level of control as it means that “people come in automatically if they just meet the criteria” and she cited her experience as the Home Secretary based on which a points-based system could easily be gamed.

This declaration may be somewhat unexpected given that the points-based immigration system was part of the Leave campaign’s program. One could also argue that Australia’s example shows that a system like this combined with quotas could provide a fairly good grip on the immigration.

If not the point system, then what? Press reports have recently pointed towards a work permit system, in which EU citizens would be allowed into the country if they secured a job prior to arrival. It is not difficult to see what the potential weaknesses are in this approach. Which types of jobs would qualify? What happens when the worker becomes unemployed – not an unlikely outcome given the inherently short-term nature of the low-skilled jobs that most of the EU immigrants take up?

A so-called “emergency brake” on immigration has also been discussed in the press recently. Under this solution, the UK would be able to suspend the preferential treatment of new arrivals from the EU for an extended period of time (a period of seven years has been cited) and it would be a materially stronger policy than the “emergency brake on benefits” negotiated by David Cameron earlier this year.

In the end, the UK’s approach to immigration from the EU should be viewed in the broader context of the upcoming exit negotiations with the EU, where the level of access to the EU single market is likely to be as important as the control of immigration. In that context it is unlikely that the government would like to paint itself into a corner on a key negotiation point by declaring its immigration strategy months before the negotiations even start.